My Trip To Europe. Day 17. Monday, October 20. Florence

The Tube that Changed The World.

The Coin of the Day is the Vitruvian Man.

Coin of the Day:  The Vitruvian Man

The Euro coinage is the only place where the currency allows the individual states of the Eurozone to show individuality.  Here’s Italy’s Euro coin:

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It depicts Leonard da Vinci’s famous drawing, the Vitruvian Man.  And of course Florence has a claim on this man, as it does Michelangelo, Dante, and Galileo.

Incidentally, there were available for sale here and there T-shirts with this design on them:

I made my way to Piazza della Signoria in the morning drizzle (helped cool off the hotel room, it did!), and saw this instantly-recognizable building, the Palazzo Vecchio.


At least, it’s instantly recognizable if you saw this map yesterday.


This building is notable for being where Michelangelo’s David was originally situated.  Of course they’ve moved the original off somewhere, and this is a copy.


Right next to it is this enclosed area that’s part of the Uffizi.


Just before going through the archway on the end you see these statues:


Galileo needs no introduction.  Amerigo Vespucci is less significant, but something very significant is named for him.

Once I went through this archway I realized I wasn’t quite where I wanted to be today, and I had to hunt around a bit.

But eventually I did find the science museum, filled with all manner of historic scientific instruments made of brass; many were finely crafted works of art, almost everything was beautifully made, but nothing really stood out.

20-009Note the precision engraving on this.


20-010 20-011 20-012 20-013 These come from an era when they had to be built with stone knives and bearskins; none of today’s precision machine tools!

20-014And drafting tools.  And globes.  The 1500s was when the Age of Exploration really took off, when Europe realized it had whole “new” continents to investigate.  Maps had to be made, and that is where Mr. Vespucci–here he is again–comes in.


Then you walk into Room VII, and if you are like almost everyone else, you miss them.

These are more important than everything else in this museum put together.  In fact some might argue they are more important than every other thing on display in Florence, put together.


And they look like a pair of cheap cardboard tubes!

These are Galileo’s Telescopes.

Below the two wooden tubes is a fancy holder for the objective (big, front) lens of the telescopes.

The actual telescopes used by Galileo, who was the first to point the things at the night sky and realize much of the accepted wisdom about the universe was wrong.

There’s a lot of confusion over this.  Galileo did not invent the telescope; he was just the first to point it at the night sky.  And at that he only beat Christian Huygens of the Netherlands to some major discoveries by a few days!

Galileo’s most famous discoveries with his telescope are:

  • That the moon has mountains (it’s not a perfectly smooth cueball of a sphere)
  • That Jupiter has four moons that orbit it (so not everything, clearly, revolves around the earth)
  • That the sun has spots (it too, is not a perfect, smooth, unblemished sphere).
  • That Venus exhibits phases, and is thus clearly orbiting the sun.
  • [edit to add] That the Milky Way is in fact composed of countless stars, individually too faint to see with the unaided eye.  Furthermore, even the “black” parts of the sky contain numerous stars too faint to see with the unaided eye.

It also turns out he saw the planet Neptune, but didn’t know it at the time.

He recorded much of this in this book:


There’s a lot of mythology built up around him, as being a martyr to a church uninterested in what he wanted to show, and that he was right.

Well, yes, and no.

It’s true that the Church was wedded to Ptolemaic astronomy, for some reason, and that Galileo was opposed to it.  However, that alone is not what did him in.  What ultimately was his undoing was being directed by the Pope to give both sides an equal hearing in his last dialog, but then ignoring the direction, and giving the Pope’s views short shrift, the last couple of pages of the book, and put into the mouth of Simplicio, the Simpleton.

In this book:


The pope took that as  defiance of his instructions and an insult, and that was all it took.

Somehow, that’s even worse, that a man can be put under house arrest for insulting a religious figure.  (This still goes on in other parts of the world.)

He also wasn’t actually right, not in detail.  He was right about the planets orbiting the sun, not the earth, but he also held that their motion was of uniform velocity in circular orbits, the Copernican, not what we know today as the Keplerian model.  That was clearly wrong, and it was clear even back then, based on observations that had been made with the naked eye:  there was no way to torture the data to make it consistent with those kinds of orbits.  The Jesuit leadership was a lot more open minded than people today give them credit for and was actually interested in using a telescope to help themselves learn more, but Galileo’s insistence that it proved circular orbits turned them off.

What he did show was that dogmatic insistence on all the bodies in the heavens circling the earth was an error, and he showed that the belief in perfect, unblemished spheres was wrong as well.

But even without the telescope, Galileo’s work was important.  He worked out the mathematical characteristics of how things accelerate as they fall, showing that the distance fallen was a function of the square of the time.  He used balls rolling down a ramp as a proxy for falling objects. This would prove to be foundational for Isaac Newton’s work.  In order to do that, by the way, he had to discover that a pendulum has a perfectly regular interval, and use one to time his experiment.  (There’s a pendulum bar at the right side of the ramp, and bells that would ring at regular intervals as the ball rolled, even though they were spaced 1, 3, 5, 7 and nine units apart.)


Speaking of timekeeping, it turned out that the motions of Jupiter’s moons could be used to determine the time, independently of the sun.  This was very important, because the only way to determine longitude back then was to look at where the sun was, then figure out what time it was “back home” and determine the difference between where the sun ought to be back home, and where it was where you were.  This device


Allowed one to correct for the parallax introduced by the earth’s moving back and forth around the sun, and determine what the Jovian satellites’ configuration was with respect to the sun.

Of course this method still failed to account for one thing:  light speed delay.  When the earth is further away from Jupiter, the picture of the Jovian satellites you see in your telescope is as much as 8 1/2 minutes out of date, when the earth is closest (at opposition) it can be 8 1/2 minutes premature.  But it was a huge improvement over, basically, taking an educated guess.

Back to Galileo:  From his work on falling bodies, he was able to show that ballistic objects (like cannonballs, or anything you throw) follow a parabolic path.  The old theory (that a fired cannonball flew in a straight line until it slowed to a stop, then fell straight down) was known by any artilleryman to be completely ridiculous, but was still taught.  Which is part of the non-scientific outlook that Galileo fought against.

Here are the tangible results of that work, the military compass (with owner’s manual).


Galileo’s most important contribution, in the end, is not the splashy stuff with the telescope, or even the ramp he used to demonstrate how gravity behaved, but the rather dull, humdrum concepts behind the scientific method; that put all science, not just astronomy, on a sound footing.

Regadless of his errors, his work began the scientific revolution, which altered our view of our universe and our place in it, and made possible our modern society.  It all started with these cheap-looking tubes, and this ramp.

How many times can you look at a specific object, and say to yourself, “That thing, that very thing right there, changed the world!

20-022Though to be sure it would not have done so without this man behind the eyepiece.



I then took a walk back to a place near the Galleria Accademia, a Leonardo da Vinci museum.

On the way I saw the Duomo, the big cathedral, with the titanic dome built by Brunelleschi.  This building suffers from one serious flaw, though:  It’s impossible to photograph well from street level; it’s right in your face and enormous, and something will block your view of some of it.  Sometimes it even blocks your view of other parts of it.


Not that that stopped me from trying.

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There are two Leonardo da Vinci museums in Florence, both are worth 2 euros for admission.  Unfortunatley, they charge 7 euros each.

With 20-20 hindsight, I should have gone on that tour to Pisa.  I would have had time, afterwards, to see the Tubes That Changed The World.

And finally, in the “what on earth is THIS doing doing all the way over HERE?!?” department is this exhibition on the Lakota.

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Tomorrow:  The other famous art gallery in Florence.  Then I take off for parts south.

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