Today, we talk about
sunspots, China, and Galileo. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
In 1605 Father Ricci, a
Jesuit in China, wrote the Vatican asking them to
send a mathematical astronomer to join him in
Peking. He'd found the Chinese very interested in
the subject. They'd already soaked up everything he
had to offer.
He got his astronomer eight years later. In the
meantime, a young Galileo had become famous by
making the first Italian telescope and discovering
remarkable things with it. The man Rome sent to
Peking was a student of Galileo's.
At that time, Galileo's stock was very high in the
Catholic church. Some scholars sensed that his work
was leading up to the destruction of Ptolemaic
astronomy -- which was part of Catholic theology.
But the issue of a sun-centered solar system hadn't
arisen yet. For the moment Rome was fascinated.
Galileo's first assault on the perfect universe was
his discovery of imperfection in the planets. First
he'd shown that the moon wasn't sublime empyrean
matter at all. It was pitted and scarred rock. Then
he'd found that the sun had spots.
Western literature often credits Galileo with
discovering sunspots. In fact he was not by any
means the first to see them. Islamic scientists had
seen them, and so too had earlier Europeans. But
sightings in the West were made and forgotten --
they didn't fit the general conviction that the
heavens were perfect.
The Chinese had no such illusions about the
heavens. They had no problem with imperfect
planets. Sunspot observations in China were
continuous right back to the fourth century BC.
Historian Joseph Needham finds 112 references to
sunspots between 28 BC and the death of Galileo,
and that was in official histories alone. None of
that needed the help of Galileo's telescope,
because the Chinese were quite ready to see what
By the time Galileo had fallen from grace and gone
on trial in Rome, his telescope and his ideas had
found their way to Japan. The Japanese put a
telescope in Nagasaki harbor to warn against
approaching foreigners. They hadn't much cared
about the heliocentric universe before, but now
they claimed Japanese scholars had discovered it.
They even claimed the idea was part of their own
ancient religious orthodoxy.
And so the great revolution of astronomy began.
Galileo's sight was permanently damaged from
looking at sunspots through his telescope.
Controversy flared among the Jesuits. Revisionist
history sprang up in Japan. And the practical
Chinese took up the telescope to direct field
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds