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Galileo, Renaissance Scholar

Town and Gown Together at Interdisciplinary Event


A little while back, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History hosted a collaborative event centered on astronomy and other fields as they were studied in the Renaissance period by Galileo Galilei, and highlighting Galileo’s surprising connection to a variety of disciplines like literature and art.

Karl Hutterer, director of the museum, praised the sold-out event on November 12 as one that “brought the community and the University together.” The interdisciplinary presentation , called “Galileo, the Universe, and God” was a creation of UCSB astronomer and physicist Tommaso Treu and his wife, Stefania Tutino, a professor of religious studies and history.

The academic lectures elaborated on the themes suggested by an opening play, Life of Galileo. Acted by a troupe from UCSB, the play chronicled the events leading up to and immediately following Galileo’s trial for heresy and subsequent house arrest. The performers coupled history with humor, drawing laughs when Galileo explained to a student, “I recanted due to the threat of physical pain-they showed me their instruments.”

Following Life of Galileo, Treu and Patrick McCray, who is a professor of the history of science and technology, were the first to present. They discussed the history of the telescope, from before Galileo’s time up to present-day advances in astronomy-in particular the impressive telescopes the University of California uses for its research. The astronomers were especially thrilled about the telescopes at the Las Cumbres Global Observatory Telescope Network facility, which Treu described as “a new domain in science.” Another telescope to be built and operated by the UC in the next several years will measure 30 meters wide; to demonstrate its immense diameter, Treu projected a humorous rendition of the invention nestled in a football stadium .

The audience was reminded that the telescope was originally a Dutch invention, and, as can be seen in paintings of the epoch, was quickly copied throughout Europe. Galileo’s first version magnified objects just thee times; by 1610 he used his creations to sketch the moons of Jupiter.

After the astronomers, professors from diverse and unexpected disciplines presented Galileo’s connection to their fields, explaining that in the Renaissance period academic fields were not so clearly separated as today’s “majors.” Thus the audience discovered Galileo’s talents as a draftsman and a poet.

The most compelling presentation came from Jon Snyder, a splendidly articulate professor of Italian literature. Noting that Galileo had the “courage to publish unsettling beliefs” about the universe, he elaborated on the theme that Galileo was more than a scientist: He was an artist and-who knew?-“one of the of the best writers of the 17th century. Said the professor, Galileo had a “passion for letters,” as is evident by his poetry and the lectures he delivered at the University of Pisa. One of these brilliant lectures was particularly demonstrative of the inseparable bonds between dissimilar academic disciplines that were characteristic of the era: Inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, Galileo used his knowledge of physics to map the geography of hell, purgatory, and heaven. The professor called Galileo’s work an example of the “imaginative capacity of scientists.”

Galileo the draftsman was a master of the Renaissance visual arts innovation of perspective, said art history professor Robert Williams. The professor went on to connect Galileo’s interest in perspective to the development of accurate portrayals of figures in religious art.

Finally, Tutino clarified the events which transpired between Galileo and the Catholic Church, stating that the belief that Galileo was persecuted merely for his theories on how the heavenly bodies spun is incorrect. Rather, Tutino argued, it was Galileo’s independent communication of his theories that got him in trouble. The church was offended because it “had to be the leader in scientific intellect,” given that this was an age when the church was responsible for interpreting texts for its parishioners. In short, Galileo, who had a “complex relationship with Catholicism,” was considered trouble due to his direct “involvement in the debates of his time, including those about scripture.”



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