REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
Four centuries ago, there was another guy stirring up scientific trouble with the church. His name, Galileo. His tool of choice, a telescope. And what he saw changed the way we think about our universe.
For the first time ever, kids in this country, like Ben(ph) and Matthew Bernstein(ph) can peer through one of Galileo's very own telescopes.
Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #2: I just see like black and a little dot.
Unidentified Man #3: Oh, but you did see something?
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, like…
Unidentified Man #3: Oh, good.
Unidentified Man #2: Little white dots up there.
ROBERTS: That little white dot is not a star. It's actually a light bulb shining from the ceiling of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. This is where Galileo's telescope, one of only two in existence, will live for the next few months.
Chief Astronomer Derrick Pitts is in the museum. He's making sure Ben and Matthew and the other visitors see Galileo's own writing on the four century old telescope. And we got our own lesson.
Mr. DERRICK PITTS (Chief Astronomer, Franklin Institute): When you look at this instrument, at first, it doesn't look like very much. It looks like a kid's high school project or junior high school project from the kitchen table or the garage.
It's a wooden tube with two lenses mounted in it. There's the objective lens at the top of the scope, and the eyepiece lens at the bottom of the scope.
When you think about it, it's very primitive by today's standards. But in 1610, this is a remarkable instrument. Its magnification power is enough to open the universe for astronomical research.
ROBERTS: It also goes to show you how remarkable Galileo was, with this technology, he was able to do what he was able to do.
Mr. PITTS: Without actually having had his hands on a telescope, he immediately improved the instrument by a factor of three and then took that to a factor of seven beyond that.
ROBERTS: In addition to the technological leap, was there a philosophical leap to even want to look more closely at the heavens? Do you think looking closely at them and trying to figure out what they were made of and what's the difference between a planet and a star was revolutionary by itself?
Mr. PITTS: I wouldn't think that would be the case for the general populous. However, for someone like Galileo, that would have been an impetus to make this kind of observation.
Galileo's a very curious individual. He already is in disagreement with the prevailing theories of a number of astronomical things anyway. So he puts these things together with the capability of the instrument and starts to make these observations and realizes that seeing Jupiter as a world unto itself with its own moons and orbit is probably a fairly good representative model of the structure of the solar system as the heliocentric solar system. And so this is what gives him the courage to push on and say yes, I believe this is true.
ROBERTS: Do you remember the first time you looked through a telescope?
Mr. PITTS: It was a remarkable experience, realizing what is out in the universe beyond the world that we see and really beyond what we read about in books or see in pictures, to actually see it yourself; and for me, seeing it for myself told me that this is what I'm interested in for the rest of my life. I want to study the universe.
ROBERTS: If people who are just hobbyists, or they've got some really good binoculars or maybe a dusty telescope somewhere just want to remind themselves of that feeling of how cool it is to look out there, what should they be looking at?
Mr. PITTS: The simple things for people to observe are still some of the best objects to observe. A simple, bright star can be a really beautiful object. There's a bright star in the summer sky called Vega, which is absolutely stunning. It looks like a brilliant diamond. I can't think of another star that looks as impressive.
But Saturn is a fabulous object to see; and Saturn is available for view right now. It's rising in the evening sky, about an hour or so after sunset, high in the eastern sky. In fact right now, as we observe it, the rings are very close to edge on, which is an unusual sort of a view for us. It happens only every 12 years or so that we get the chance to make this kind of observation. And it's interestingly close to the same kind of observation that Galileo would have had in 1610.
ROBERTS: Derrick Pitts is the chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, where the exhibit "Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy" will be on view until September.