Real Talk With Gallileo

On keeping time with heartbeats and the bumpy, dusty moon.

Today, I’ll be having another one of those one-sided conversations with a dead person, as I love to do from time to time when I find occasion to think about them. What got me on this track was learning that on this day in 1609, Gallileo Gallilei demonstrated his first telescope to lawmakers in Venice. I was wondering: Why, of all people, was it them? Perhaps he needed a permit. I have not yet found the answer to this question, but I did find some more questions.

Gallileo, I’ve been wondering.

What must it have been like, to notice ––while studying medicine at your father’s insistence, after he discouraged you from your calling as a priest, after he discouraged your interest in mathematics (on the grounds that neither vocation paid as well as a physicist)––that the chandelier above you, swinging in the wind at variable arcs, seemed to keep time with your heartbeat, regardless of the size of the arc? To discover, in the experiment that followed, that pendulums of any length will keep time with one another and the human heart?

What is it like to know what happened to this discovery, how it led––a century later–– to the creation of the first timepiece, which over time meant that people kept time, which over centuries meant that people were kept by time, which over centuries meant that people no longer tended to look at the sky or the shadows of a sundial to know the hour; that people would often be so rushed by the march of expectations corresponding to the commodification of minutes, that they would no longer stop to look up?

Apologies for this digression. Of course, I am projecting here. I am somewhat envious of your freedom for study––of your freedom to stop and examine things, period. That and the way that not only did you never need to introduce yourself with an ID number, you didn’t even use a last name. 

Of course, you had money troubles of your own, especially with your brother, a composer, constantly accruing debt to support his love of music. You had studied the arts, too, against the wishes of your father, and you befriended the painter Cignoli, who painted a Madonna on the moon, which was a common-enough image until you noticed the pockmarks on the moon.

I can’t help but think that his friendship with you had a hand in the painter’s decision to resist the convention of a mythical orb. I can’t help but think that time spent with you helped him to appreciate the poetry of the possibility that the celestial body elevating her feet need not be a perfect sphere of dreamlike luminescence, that it might instead be a rock not unlike the rocks of this world, suggestive of a sort of comical lopsidedness, with cracks and crevices in which everyday filth and ordinariness may easily accumulate, along with lunar dust and cosmic pests and possibly even space mildew.

I am grateful that your work made it possible to make certain associations between our most sublime conceptions––say, heaven––and the stuff that was hanging around everywhere, either invisible or appearing to be in the way of the men with their lofty goals, who preferred not to debase themselves with considerations of the cracks in surfaces, the way that the wind would get through, and the cold, the way you had to keep mending and stopping them like you had to keep changing and feeding and holding the crying babies, ––

gathering and chopping and seasoning and boiling and stewing and roasting and cleaning; to feed the noble man a single meal, just before you got back to the babies and before you got back to do it again, how sometimes, even after all this, it was still possible, for the length of sixty to a hundred heartbeats at night, ––

just after the children were asleep, to sit in a chair, looking up, feeling an ineffable pull toward a wonder and mystery that felt both vast and made of the same mystery that you had noticed gathering herbs, wrapping the soft body of an infant, and in the longings that persisted no matter how long they seemed to go unanswered.

Thank you for insisting on this connection, even though it meant you were outcast from the basilicas you loved, from the rituals you had once thought to administer yourself, from the silence of the naves with their candles and incense, and the awe of an intimate mystery in the air.  

I’d love to say more, but my second alarm is going off now, and I’ve not yet been awake for an hour. Time to check the sleeping baby, time to check the food, iron the clothes, pack the things of the day, all the while watching the clock––which marches, I know now, by the rhythm you first noticed in the chandeliers swinging above you as you sat with the books you meant to study, the assignments you meant to get to, the financial responsibilities you meant to meet, the appointments you meant to keep, the wandering heart you meant to tame, and you could not keep your eyes from wandering up, to rest on what you had yet to understand, having the insight to notice that even this was made of something as utterly familiar as the drum in your own chest. 

Author: Stacey C. Johnson

I am here to wonder out loud. The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

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