Monday, December 15, 2008

I saw it on the web, so it must be true

On December 3rd I was scheduled to be Toastmaster at Capitol Club. I usually look up the meeting date on the web in order to find a theme or historical background material. A couple of the sites I looked at were here and here.

I was flabbergasted to see that Galileo was supposed to have invented the telescope on precisely December 3, 1621. Back in my early teens I had taken a class on telescope making at the local planetarium. I had been taught that a spectacle maker, Hans Lippershey, invented the telescope rather than Galileo.

Lippershey asked for a patent back in October of 1608. Galileo heard of the telescope in July of 1609. First he made a 3X one like Lippershey had, and then he went beyond that magnification and showed an 8X one to the Venetian Senate in August.

What Galileo actually did to become famous was to point his latest 20X telescope at the night sky in October or November of 1609. He discovered the moons of Jupiter, and reported his results in March 1610 a book called Sidereus Nuncius (the Starry Messenger).

So, what really happened in history on December 3, 1621? According to the Wikipedia it was the birthday of the Jesuit writer Bohuslav Balbín, known as the “Bohemian Pliny”.

When you Google and find a historical "fact" you should ask questions like:
1) Who says so?

2) Who are they?
3) Why would you think they really know this?
and you should check more than one site to verify your material.


There is an excellent guide to evaluating web pages at the University of California Berkeley web site.

1 comment:

Michael Kroth said...

Richard, I had to laugh at this one because, though your post sounded wise, by following your own advice I had to view your own advice skeptically. Ha!

As always, it is a pleasure to read your posts.