For astronomy aficionados, it’s old news: 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy. But in case you haven’t heard, this celebration is now occurring in honor of Galileo, who four hundred years ago first peered at the heavens with his homemade “optical tube.” (The word telescope wasn’t coined until 1611.)
I wish astronomy officials had waited until 2010, in order to commemorate Galileo’s famous book Sidereus nuncius (“The Sidereal Messenger” or “The Starry Messenger”), a compilation of the notes and letters he wrote during his first months of observation. Others were beginning to look at the nighttime sky with spyglasses (for one, Thomas Harriot in England), but Galileo was the first to publish, providing a keen analysis of his observations. It was Sidereus nuncius, a best seller in the spring of 1610, that made Galileo famous. That’s when the professor, then 46 years old, became the A-list celebrity of his time. The public was mesmerized by his reports of craggy mountains on the Moon, a Milky Way composed of myriad stars, and moons circling the planet Jupiter—all previously unknown. 2010 seems a more fitting time for a year-long salute to astronomy. It also wouldn’t have competed with the “Year of Darwin,” also now going on to mark the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
But who am I, a humble science writer, to challenge the all-powerful Oz. . .er, International Astronomy Union. So, I’m doing my bit for the cause. Natural History magazine will be excerpting a few sections from my latest book, The Day We Found the Universe, over the course of the year as a way of joining the celebration and recognizing, as the editors put it, “the events and scientists that have advanced our understanding of the cosmos during the last hundred years.” The first article, a selection from my book’s preface, is now out in the magazine’s June issue.
Above photo: Five pages from Sidereus nuncius, including Galileo's drawings of the Moon.