Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sun spots, Galileo and Church

Humans are by definition both homo habilis - early prehistoric man found in Africa "tool malker" - and homo religiosus who interprets signs also in the realm of the divine.

Our species has survived and taken control of much of the planet by building tools and by having imagination and vision about what could be achieved by using them. Various instruments of observation have given us better knowledge of the physical world in which we live than our unaided senses. They have also been used to prove or disprove theories about reality and possible explanations to natural phenomena that our brilliant minds are able to produce.

The beliefs of homo religiosus
The Sun is such a dominant element in the human reality that it has itself been the object of religious worship from Pharaonic Egypt to Inca and elsewhere.

The Bible strips Sun of all divinity and lists it among the creation of God of Israel. The creation story at the beginning of the Bible is written by people for whom the world was geocentric. Sun, Moon and stars are made on the Fourth Day of Creation after, for example, the green grass and trees that bring fruit each one according to its species.

And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years: and let them be for lights in the firmament of heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.

And God made the two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.

And God set them in the firmament of heaven to give light upon the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.
Genesis 1:15-19

Theologically it has always been clear that Sun is not a divine being but a created object. However, it gained a very special role in the Christian Church as a major Sign, the most telling Symbol of the invisible God the Father. In the Book of Revelation there is even no need for the Sun:

"And there shall be night no more; and they need no light of lamp, neither light of sun; for the Lord God shall give them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever."  (Rev 22:5)

An observation by homo habilis

Sun spots showing the rotation of the star 

When Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) heard that some smart Dutchmen had aligned various polished pieces of glass on their axis in a tube and gained magnified view of objects he did the same at home and build his first telescope. Looking through this new instrument Galileo was able to notice that Saturn has horns and other things.

Since he was exceptionally smart he did not aim the new instrument directly at the Sun. That would have blinded him permanently by focusing too much daylight into his eye.

Instead, he used a kind of camera obscura, a pinhole allowing sunlight into a wooden box. This projects safely an accurate upside down image of the Sun on the white canvas in the box or into the wall of a darkened room.

The brightness of the Sun hides the black spots on its surface from anyone looking at the star and they had never been reported before. The simple method Galileo used made the spots clearly visible and the Italian genius was able to observe the spots actually moving on the surface of the Sun suggesting rotation.

The solution
How could there be black spots in this perfect symbol of God?

Since the religious man had absolute cultural authority in the Italy of Galileo's time there was a neat solution at hand to the disturbing problem created by his observation.

The religious man did not repeat Galileo's test to see if he was speaking the truth. He was not interested in the reality that can be observed with novel techniques and new instruments that reveal what unaided human eye cannot see.

The religious man had strong unshakable faith, inner truth that was written in authoritative religious documents, and so there can be no blemish in the perfect symbol of God.

Using the police power given to him by the society the religious man silenced the man building tools. As if preventing Galileo from publishing his discoveries man could wipe off the black spots from Sun which is, after all, a symbol and sign of the One God!

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