Thursday, June 2, 2011

In awe of majesty

The other day, we drove into the small Italian town of Orvieto, which is nestled in the hills of northern Italy. We parked our car near an old school, paid the parking machine, and walked up the hill to the central square. When we made the turn around the bend, the magnificent Orvieto Cathedral appeared in front of us. It was absolutely stunning.

The photos on the internet do not capture its beauty nor the awe that one feels standing in front of this huge structure, decorated throughout with centimeter-sized tiles laid carefully by teams of craftsmen. It must have taken thousands of man-years to complete.

The next day, we toured the walled town of Lucca, at one time home to a hundred churches and cathedrals. As we we walked from block to block, we saw many of them - magnificent pieces of art as well as impressive feats of engineering. We soaked in similar sights in Florence and Pisa.

In stark contrast, in the Museo Galileo in Florence, I found myself standing in front of a glass showcase with two modest telescopes that appeared to be made of lacquered cardboard. These Galilean creations, inferior both in quality and size to the small finder scopes that are attached to my telescopes, revolutionized our understanding of the solar system through careful observations of Jupiter's moons. In one great insight, Galileo moved the center of the solar system from the earth to the sun, 93 million miles away. I was in awe of his intellect. The beauty of a thousand exquisite cathedrals pale in comparison to the intellectual model of the solar system that he constructed.

In addition to discovering spots on the sun and craters on the moon, which shattered the Church's teaching of the perfection of the heavens, Galileo set the foundations for Newtonian mechanics and the theory of gravity, which describe the motions of the moons of Jupiter, the planets around the sun, the sun around our galaxy, and the motions of galaxies within larger clusters. More important than his discoveries, Galileo opened our eyes and minds to a new way of thinking - leading to an ever-deeper understanding of our universe that continues to our times.

While the priests pontificated on the virtues of ritual and the absolute truths held by the church, Galileo was uncovering the real truth, overturning centuries of dogma. It wasn't until 1822 that the Church lifted its ban on Galileo's writings, more than 200 years after he first turned his telescope to the heavens. In 1992, the Church apologized for its treatment of Galileo. This one man discovered the true beauty of the universe, which will continue to display its splendors well after the cathedrals have crumbled.

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