“Consult the reliable little book by Galileo…which describes observations of the stars first made by him.” So read the blurb (in 1611) for the book based on the notes that Galileo took while he peered at the heavens through a spyglass of his own making. But admiration for his book,The Starry Messenger, soon turned to castigation. Galileo went from stargazer and note-taker to first-class troublemaker. Scientists still thank their lucky stars that he did.
400 years after its publication, The
Starry Messenger still causes a stir, but for different reasons.
One is the book itself, and the attempts that have been made to forge it. The other is the book as radical thought piece, and what it meant for modern science that Galileo was able to upend the conventional wisdom of his day. He caused some tremors that still reverberate.
These two different aspects of one little book (the original is just 30 pages) converge in the new facsimile edition of The Starry Messenger that Levenger Press has published with the Library of Congress. The Library has one of the few intact copies of Galileo’s modest but monumental opus, mercifully left untrimmed by book binders who didn’t know better. It is housed within the Library in a vault made of glazed brick and outfitted with the latest in fire-retardant technology. Kept under temperature and humidity control, “the reliable little book” is also kept under lock and key, accessible by only a few. Clearly, this is a troublemaker of the first order.
The editors of the new facsimile edition, Daniel De Simone and John W. Hessler, are among the Library staff who have access to the book. Dan is the curator in charge of the Rosenwald rare-book collection that houses Galileo’s. John is the curator of another of the Library’s collections and a lecturer in the history of early modern science at Johns Hopkins University. The two of them talked with Levenger Press editor Mim Harrison about The Starry Messenger and what it can teach us about the world today.
Levenger Press: Galileo based his notes on what he saw through a simple spyglass that he cobbled together. Was he, in fact, developing some new and disruptive technology?
John Hessler: Galileo did not, of course, invent the telescope, but rather improved it in important ways. The idea that he cobbled it together is an interesting way to put it, since we do see him experimenting a great deal with different kinds of lenses and tubes and different methods for making better lenses. One of my favorite Galileo manuscripts happens to be a shopping list from late 1609, at the very time he was making improvements to the instrument, which not only has things like raisins, chick peas and spelt listed on it but also an organ pipe, rock crystal and fine clay to grind lenses. The list shows Galileo as the true garage inventor, working to quickly perfect an instrument that he thinks might make him some money.
LP: In our very first meeting about the book, you said of Galileo: “He trusted his notes.” What part does Galileo as a good note-taker play in The Starry Messenger?
Daniel De Simone: The Starry Messenger was one of the first books based almost totally on observation, and the evidence that Galileo used to construct his thesis was based on the notes he compiled during the process of observing the moon, the Milky Way, and Jupiter. Observation became the hallmark of the scientific revolution, and much of the original evidence that scientists used was based on the notations that they made during the process. Once an observation was made, recorded and reported, other scientists could check the findings by making their own observations. Galileo trusted the notes he made and rushed to publish them before someone else made similar observations and reported their findings in print.
LP: Was this the first time a scientist of Galileo’s stature could actually prove his point, thanks to his telescope and notes?
John: Galileo was not a committed Copernican before his telescopic observations. The idea that the earth moved around the sun as put forward by Copernicus in 1543 provided a slightly simpler way of calculating the positions of the planets and stars, and predicting eclipses and equinoxes, when compared with the older, Ptolemaic, earth-centered universe of the ancient Greeks. Galileo’s observations of Jupiter’s moons, and even more important, of the phases of Venus, changed all that and actually provided empirical evidence that Copernicus was, in fact, correct.
LP: When The Starry Messenger was first published, it was not the controversial book that it became. What happened to sway people’s opinions?
John: When the book was first published, Cardinal Bellarmine, one of the most important theologians at the Vatican, had the book examined by some of the best mathematicians at the Collegio Romano. This group found that Galileo was correct on all points and that his observations of the mountains on the moon, the additional new stars and the moons of Jupiter were, for the most part, correct. It was only later, after what had actually been shown in the book began to sink in, that several prominent theologians started to regard the Copernican system as against Biblical teaching. The fact that Galileo held that the earth did, in reality, move, and did not consider the Copernican system simply a convenient calculation device, got him into trouble. It was a position that he would later recant in order to avoid prison.
LP: Not only did the contents of the book get him into trouble--the book itself has been at the center of some controversy because of attempts to forge it. But the Library’s copy has helped to distinguish the real from the fake. Is the proof essentially in the paper?
Dan: Not exclusively in the paper. An analysis of type and image is also a method of determining authenticity. For example, in many books woodcut initial letters were used to decorate volumes during the hand-press period. Because of the methods used to forge books, a distortion is sometime detectable when the images of these initials are examined. The same goes for typefaces. With a practiced eye, these subtle distortions become apparent. Also, an understanding of period book bindings will help to detect a sophisticated binding or a remboitâge binding, a modern repair meant to resemble an original work. So in effect, the study of the book as a physical object, in all its component parts, is required in the detection of modern forgeries.
LP: We learned a new word reading your preface in the book: filigranology. Why is it important to Galileo’s book?
Dan: The study of watermarks, or filigranology, as it is sometimes referred to, has become an extremely important element of bibliographical study over the past sixty years. Alan Stevenson, an American researcher working in the libraries of Great Britain after World War II, began to notice that editions of printed books that did not have imprint information such as printer, city of publication and date, could be identified in some cases by the watermarks that appear on the printed leaves of the book. Conversely, books that were attributed to a place or date could be questioned based on the watermarks that appeared on the paper of a given copy. This was important for the study of Galileo’s books because recently a number of copies appeared on the market, at prices above a half million dollars, that were being sold as originals. Because the copies of Galileo in the Rosenwald Collection have such strong provenance, the copies in questions were brought to the Library of Congress so a comparison of watermarks could be made to see if the watermarks matched.
John: Science is about experiment and not about ideology, it is about patience and observation, and it is not an easy road to follow. It is revisable and not fixed for all time. Sometimes what scientists find is not always what the rest of the world wants to hear. Today we can reflect on controversies that surround evolution and global warming as the same sorts of battles that Galileo was waging.
LP: For those of us who are not scientists (or mathematicians), why is The Starry Messenger still a relevant book?
John: The Starry Messenger is more than simply a book. It is an icon, a symbol for the way science is done. We can see in it not only empirical experiments and observations, but we can also see lurking in the background the luck that we sometimes need in order to stumble into a discovery. Galileo started his observations with a telescope that was no more than a child’s toy, a gift given to him by a close friend, and with it he created a revolution in thought that gave us much of our modern world view.