Saturn and Galileo
Saturn has returned to our central Ohio sky at last. No astronomical sight is more breathtaking, even in a small telescope, than Saturn’s celestial hat brim. Around 10 p.m., look for the ringed planet low in the southeastern sky as a yellow point of light.
Most folks imagine that science in general and astronomy in particular is filled with calm, single-minded people who quest unceasingly after truth. The fact is that the history of astronomy is filled with weirdness on a cosmic scale. Even the greatest discoveries are often cloaked in dark portents and strange events.
Such was the case with the discovery of the rings of Saturn.
Saturn is the farthest planet from the sun visible to the unaided eye. At about a billion miles away from our daystar, it takes almost 30 years to make one orbit. As a result, it moves very slowly against the background stars, a motion that our ancient forebears saw as stately and beautiful.
The ancients had no telescopes, of course, so the rings that girdle the planet were unknown to them. They saw the planets as perfect and unchanging, their motions predictable. To say otherwise was heresy, a blasphemy against the gods who created them.
That circumstance was true even up to the early 17th century, when the inquisition still wielded its velvet-gloved fist over the intellectual life of Europe.
Galileo Galilee was a follower of the Copernican model of the cosmos, which placed the sun at the center and the planets revolving around it. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church still espoused the old Ptolemaic model, which placed Earth at the center. They saw the heavens as unchanging, perfect reflections of the power of a perfect God.
But it was not Galileo’s sun-centered model that got him in trouble with the Church. You see, Galileo was a scientist. He believed that direct observation of the universe produces our best understanding of its workings. The Church believed that the senses can trick us. Only divine revelation produces true understanding.
When Galileo first pointed his tiny telescope at Saturn, he saw something that shocked him so much that he had to tell the world: “SMAISMRMIMLEPOETALEUMIBUNENUGTTAURIAS,” he wrote.
Ha! Foolish Galileo. That conclusion is, as you can clearly see, totally incorrect.
Confused? You should be. This cryptic message is an anagram — of a Latin sentence, no less. It says, “Altissimum planetam tergeminum obseruani.”
Galileo’s telescope was so poor by today’s standards that he had not seen the rings. Instead, he had observed two circular lumps perched on each side of the planet like planetary Mickey-Mouse ears. As the Latin loosely translates into English, “I have seen the highest planet [Saturn] to be triple in form.”
A few months later, Galileo translated his anagram for the world. This and other telescopic observations of the heavens got him into a world of trouble. He tried showing others what he had seen, but remember, the senses can deceive us. Telescopes are hard to use, especially when you don’t know how to look through them. Galileo’s guinea pigs were the first humans to look through a telescope, and they cannot be blamed for seeing nothing at all.
Besides, the planets had to be perfect representations of God’s power. What better representation of perfection is there than a perfect, uniform sphere? Mickey-Mouse ears didn’t exactly fit into that picture.
By 1665, Dutch astronomer Christian Huygens had developed a better telescope, which he trained on the planet Saturn. Here is his startling discovery in his own words: “aaaaaaacccccdeeeeeghiiiiiiillllmmnnnnnnnnnooooppqrrstttttuuuuu.”
Ha! In honor of Galileo, Huygens had published his observations as another Latin anagram, which in English reads, “Saturn is girdled by a thin, flat ring, touching it nowhere, and tilted to the ecliptic.” I’ll leave it to you anagram fans to figure out what the Latin is.
Tom Burns is the director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory, and he would be very happy to answer your questions or sell you a ticket to one of its upcoming Friday-night programs. He can be reached at email@example.com or 740–363-1257.