Category: Press and Pop Culture

Galileo In Vienna

In Vienna’s 13th district stands a beautiful Jugendstil building, the Galileihof. Designed by and built by Emil Reitmann in 1905, the building appears to have been renovated not long ago.

The Galileihof is a beautiful Jugendstil building in Vienna’s 13th district.

Vienna is strangely committed to Galileo. In addition to the Galileihof, on the other side of town is the Galileigasse, which has a beautiful relief showing Galileo, the leaning tower of Pisa, and both Jupiter and Saturn with their respective satellites.

Jimmy Kimmel & Galileo

A couple nights ago Jimmy Kimmel aired a segment that followed “Jake Byrd” at last fall’s Flat Earth Conference in Dallas. In true “Jake Byrd” fashion, he is quick witted and irreverent. But I am not particularly interested in Byrd’s performance or the content of the segment itself.1 I am more interested in Jimmy Kimmel’s opening comments:

Today’s a notable day for our galaxy. On this date back in 1610 Galileo, you know the guy from the Queen song, Galileo discovered that the universe does not revolve around the earth, on this day. And yet there are many people who not only do they still believe that the earth is the center of the universe, many of those same people believe the earth is flat, like a tortilla. They’re called “Flat Earthers” and they have conventions, and talks and shirts and mugs, the whole deal….”

Hmmm. I suppose Jimmy Kimmel is referring to Galileo’s observations on January 7, 1610, when he first saw three bright spots in a line near Jupiter. As he tracked the bright spots over a number of subsequent nights (and noticed a fourth), he concluded that they were moons orbiting Jupiter.

I am impressed that Jimmy Kimmel linked the Jake Byrd segment to what is an obscure little bit of trivia about Galileo, though he had to work to get from center of the universe to flat earth.2 I am less impressed with the whole “discovered that the universe does not revolve around the earth” bit, but baby steps.

And now, for that Galileo from the Queen song:


  1. If you are interested, you can find it by doing a quick internet search.  ↩

  2. Historians of science might think Galileo’s observations are anything but obscure trivia, but they would be wrong. Even the nerdy, NPR-listening crowd is largely ignorant of such minutia. Sure, they can tell you who Galileo was and what they think he did, generally with some historical accuracy, but the date of his initial observations of the moons of Jupiter is beyond the scope of their concern. So props to the writers on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show.  ↩

Time Traveling Marie Curie?

Browsing Amazon for children’s books on the history of science, I came across this book on Marie Curie.

An early 17th-century book on Marie Curie. Who knew?

So many questions: Who in 1600 had developed color printing and why was that technology then lost for 300 years? When did Marie Curie develop a time machine (and did it require a DeLorean traveling at 88 mph)? Or, alternatively, what divinatory techniques did the author use to discern the future? And how accurate were the author’s predictions?

Sadly, I’ll never learn the answers to my various questions since the book is out of stock.

The Twilight Zone, Mars, and Percival Lowell

The Twilight Zone episode “People are Alike All Over” opens as a rocket launches for Mars, Rod Serling’s voice intoning:

They’re taking a highway into space. Man unshackling himself and sending his tiny, groping fingers up into the unknown. Their destination is Mars. And in just a moment we’ll land there with them.

It is the Twilight Zone, so you can be sure the rocket will crash, stranding the astronauts on Mars where they will suffer some not-quite-as-it-seems experience that is meant to convey some lesson.[1] The episode was adapted from a Paul W. Fairman story, “Brothers Beyond the Void.” What caught my attention was not the literary debt, however, but was the visual reference to the canals of Mars, images made popular by Percival Lowell’s sustained efforts to study the planet.

About 30 seconds into the show we see the rocket[2] gliding toward Mars and then the scene cuts to a full-frame shot of Mars.

Highlights the image of Mars in the episode to compare it to Lowell's images of Mars.
The image of Mars in the Twilight Zone episode.

This image seems obviously inspired by Lowell’s drawings of the canals on Mars. While by no means identical (or at least, I haven’t found a drawing by Lowell that is identical) they are remarkably similar. See, for example, this drawing by Lowell:

Shows how Lowell's image of Mars resembles the image in the Twilight Zone.
One of Lowell’s many illustrations of Mars, showing the canals and oases.

Lowell was enamored with Mars and things Martian. He built his observatory in Flagstaff in order to observe Mars. He studied the planet for years, publishing three books on it: Mars, Mars and Its Canals, and Mars As the Abode of Life. These books and his other scientific/astronomical publications contained numerous drawings of the features that Lowell was convinced were canals and oases. He thought these canals transported water melting from polar icecaps to the increasingly arid portions of the planet. He was also convinced that he had observed these oases grow and shrink throughout the year. Both were evidence that intelligent beings lived on Mars.


  1. I won’t reveal the twist. If you want to know, watch the episode or read the wikipedia page linked above.  ↩

  2. The rocket that launched from the earth looks nothing like the rocket floating through space. I guess with the reduced gravity and drop in atmospheric pressure the entire ship expanded.  ↩

Of Astrolabes and Wine

Further evidence that astrolabes are infiltrating culture is the name of winery in New Zealand: Astrolabe.

A winery in New Zealand has adopted the name “Astrolabe.”

Unfortunately, this winery is not really named after the instrument. Instead, situated in the Marlborough region of New Zealand, the winery is named “after the ship that in 1827 charted and explored the Marlborough Coast.” That ship was called “L’Astrolabe” (presumably after the instrument).

The L’Astrolabe was certainly the name of a ship, but an astrolabe isn’t now nor ever was a navigational instrument.

As much as I like the connection to the ship and the instrument, I regret that the owners have been mislead by a common myth about astrolabes being used as navigational instruments. Despite what we often hear and read, astrolabes were not navigational instruments. Yes, they could be used to determine elevation of celestial objects (as well as doing a whole host of calculations), but they were never used to navigate.[1]

Whatever the case, references to astrolabes are turning up more often in popular culture (even GoT jumped on the “astrolabe” bandwagon). Before long we are likely to see Astrolabe return the lists of popular baby names. Abelard and Héloïse were just a few centuries ahead of their time.


  1. Yes, the “Mariner’s astrolabe” was used to determine the elevation of celestial objects and thereby help to determine location. But that’s a different instrument. And while some people will argue that they are similar enough to allow for the slippage from one term to another, I am not such a person. Moreover, I would argue against the validity of claiming that one was subset of the other. And because this is my little sandbox, I get to be as pedantic and particular as I wish.  ↩