Posted: 19 February, 2009
Members of the media and representatives of the UK’s astronomy community gathered at London’s Royal Observatory Greenwich last night to mark the occasion of the International Year of Astronomy 2009.
Professor Andy Fabian, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, said, "As the UK embarks on a year-long celebration of astronomy, we want to highlight the huge significance of Galileo's early observations of the night sky. Astronomers in the 21st Century enjoy the legacy of the 400 years of work that followed, built on his pioneering discoveries."
But as the RAS, the Institute of Physics (IOP) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) found out by surveying 1,000 members of the UK public, many people do not actually know what Galileo is remembered for. The results of survey show that nearly one third of the UK is just as likely to associate the name Galileo with wine, fashion or a famous ship before associating him with astronomy. Furthermore, nearly three-quarters of the surveyed public credit Galileo with erroneous discoveries, such as Neptune or the black hole at the centre of our Milky Way Galaxy, or simply don't know what he discovered – the four large satellites of Jupiter.
Hopefully by the end of the International Year of Astronomy, everybody will know that Galileo is famous for discovering the four largest satellites of Jupiter! Image: NASA.
"The UK is undertaking a massive drive to recruit scientists for the nation's future prosperity and it is well understood that astronomy continues to inspire young minds and help them appreciate science," says Professor Ian Robson, the UK Chair for IYA 2009. "In publishing the results of this survey we are not pointing a finger, just hoping to remind the UK how one man and one telescope changed the world forever and to encourage more people to look with awe and enthusiasm at the beautiful night sky."
Exactly 400 years ago, Galileo observed the four major moons of Jupiter – which are now known as the Galilean satellites in his honour – and recorded his astronomical observations, along with sketches of the Moon, in the publication Sidereus Nuncius, published in 1610. The observation was very controversial as it proved that the Earth was not the only centre of movement in the Universe, and lent support to the idea that the Earth moved around the Sun, a heretical belief which eventually led to Galileo's imprisonment.