Wednesday

Feb. 15, 2006

Being

by Linda Gregg

WEDNESDAY, 15 FEBRUARY, 2006
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Poem: "Being" by Linda Gregg from In the Middle Distance. © Graywolf Press. Reprinted with permission.

Being

The woman walks up the mountain
and then down. She wades into the sea
and out. Walks to the well,
pulls up a bucket of water
and goes back into the house.
She hangs wet clothes.
Takes clothes back to fold them.
Every evening she crochets
from six until dark.
Birds, flowers, stars. Her rabbit lives
in an empty donkey pen. The sea is out
there are far as the stars.
Always quiet.
No one there. She may not believe
in anything. Not know
what she is doing. Every morning
she waters the geranium plant.
And the leaves smell like lemons.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of astronomer Galileo Galilei, born in Pisa, Italy (1564). By the time he was in his forties, he had made a decent name for himself as a scientist and an inventor. He'd developed the idea for the pendulum clock. He developed the hydrostatic balance which weighed precious metals in both air and water. He discovered that all objects, regardless of their weight, fall at the same speed through a vacuum. Though many doubted this discovery, he proved it by dropping objects of different weights from the tower of Pisa, proving that they would land at the same time.

But despite all these discoveries Galileo still hadn't made it big. He was sick of working at a university. He wrote to a friend at the time, "I am always at the service of this or that person. I have to consume many hours of the day—often the best ones—in the service of others." He was always strapped for cash and constantly asking his friends in the government to help get him a raise. What he wanted more than anything else was to invent something that would make him rich and famous.

Then, in the summer of 1609, Galileo heard a rumor that someone in Holland had invented a device called a spyglass which allowed people to see things up close from a distance. As soon as Galileo heard about it he cursed himself because he'd had a similar idea years ago but he'd never followed up on it. He knew that the Italian government would be interested in such a device for military purposes. So he decided to try to make one himself before anyone from Holland could travel down to Italy. If he could present it to the government first, he would get the credit.

According to Galileo it only took him twenty-four hours to design his own telescope, even though he'd never seen one. And the telescope he designed was actually better than the one from Holland, more than twenty times more powerful. He presented it to the government and they rewarded him with a lifetime appointment to his university post, with double the pay.

Even though he hadn't invented the telescope, it was Galileo's design that made news across Europe. Galileo had finally achieved his dream of fame and fortune. He might have left it at that, but he kept improving upon his design, making his telescope even more powerful. And then, one night, in the early fall of 1609, Galileo was looking out the window of his house when he saw the moon rising. Suddenly, he got the idea to look at the moon through the telescope.

It was the first time in history that a human being had seen the moon in such detail. Galileo was shocked to discover that the moon's surface wasn't smooth, but covered with craters and cavities. He spent the next two months observing the moon on every clear night, jotting down sketches of what he saw.

When he was satisfied that he'd seen enough of the moon he turned his telescope on the stars. He was amazed to find that in areas of the sky where previously a half dozen stars had formed a constellation, he could now see hundreds of new stars. And some stars that he had looked at all his life, when seen through a telescope, turned out to be clusters of different stars.

Galileo kept improving and improving the power of his telescope so he could see more and more details of the sky. He eventually designed a telescope that could magnify up to a thousand times. It was this telescope that he was using on the night of January 7, 1610 when Jupiter became visible for the first time that year. That night, Galileo saw three stars, arranged in a straight line next to Jupiter. He observed them over the next several days and found that they changed position in relation to Jupiter every night. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that these must be moons revolving around Jupiter. And if moons could revolve around Jupiter, then Aristotle's theory that everything revolved around the earth was incorrect. This observation provided evidence for Copernicus' theory that the earth revolves around the sun.

Galileo spent the rest of his life writing about these ideas, even though they got him into big trouble with the Catholic Church. By the end of his life, he was living under house arrest, his books banned, but he would go down in history as the first person to show, through direct observation, that our planet was not the center of the universe.


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