Nautilus

When the Heavens Stopped Being Perfect

I have in my hand a little book titled The Starry Messenger (Sidereus Nuncius in its original Latin), written by the Italian mathematician and scientist Galileo Galilei in 1610. There were 550 books in the first printing of Messenger. One hundred and fifty still remain. A few years ago, Christie’s valued each first edition at between $600,000 and $800,000. My paperback copy was printed in 1989 for about $12.

Although the history of science has not awarded Messenger the same laurels as Newton’s Principia or Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, I regard it as one of the most consequential volumes of science ever published. In this little book, Galileo reports what he saw after turning his new telescope toward the heavens: strong evidence that the heavenly bodies are made of ordinary material, like the winter ice at Lute Island. The result caused a revolution in thinking about the separation between heaven and earth, a mind-bending expansion of the territory of the material world, and a sharp challenge to the Absolutes. The materiality of the stars, combined with the law of the conservation of energy, decrees that the stars are doomed to extinction. The stars in the sky, the most striking icons of immortality and permanence, will one day expire and die.

seeing stars: Galileo’s telescope, which he used to view the heavens in 1610. The telescope is now in the collection of the Museo Galileo, in Florence.Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Galileo was born in Pisa and grew up in Florence. From 1592, he taught mathematics at the University of Padua. Unable to discharge his financial responsibilities on his academic salary alone—he had to pay the dowries of his sisters in addition to supporting his three children by a mistress—he took in boarders and sold scientific instruments. In the late 1580s, he

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus7 min read
Red Planet Ride-Along: Hit the trail with the Mars rovers, on the hunt for water and life.
For human travelers, the iconic moment of space exploration occurred a half-century ago, when Neil Armstrong planted the first human boot-print on the moon. But if you don’t mind using robots as our stand-ins, the greatest era is unfolding right now
Nautilus11 min readTech
It May Not Feel Like Anything To Be an Alien: Humans may have one thing that advanced aliens don’t—consciousness.
Humans are probably not the greatest intelligences in the universe. Earth is a relatively young planet and the oldest civilizations could be billions of years older than us. But even on Earth, Homo sapiens may not be the most intelligent species for
Nautilus5 min read
Galactic Settlement and the Fermi Paradox: The results of galactic colonization models are a mixed bag for SETI optimists.
A spacefaring species could easily settle the entire Milky Way given billions of years. Yet the fact is that there is no obvious one in our solar system right now. The supposed inconsistency between these statements is the Fermi Paradox, named for th