Galileo’s Magic Mirror

Galileo Galilei

“Galileo’s discovery, then, was not only the indirect mathematization of nature but also, in Price’s terms, the artificially aided perception of nature. His perception . . . stood at the forefront of the tradition of modern technologically embodied science that characterizes our own time.”1

Don Ihde discusses Galileo Galilei first in an abstract sense, following Edmund Husserl’s analysis that studiously avoids mentioning the historical Galileo—he who dropped weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, he who charted the phases of the moons of Jupiter. Of primary importance here is Galileo’s method of thinking (his ability to fish) rather than his individual accomplishments (the whoppers he has caught). Ihde follows with an extended discussion of that latter episode, of Galileo’s revelation that the telescope enabled him to see the planets in detail and discover their moons, previously hidden by their vast distance. To Ihde, Galileo’s revelation of “the artificially aided perception of nature” was crucial in its ability to fuse the abstract and the empirical knowledge of the universe into a single line of seeing—Husserl’s analysis in a nutshell.2 However, I find Galileo’s telescope particularly interesting because of its affinity with the virtual world in which we live today. By delivering clear images of an otherwise invisible world, but maintaining an unbridgeable distance between viewer and subject, the telescope articulates the paradox of intimacy and vicariousness that has governed lens-based technologies (and, ultimately, screen-based technologies) for 500 years.

To take the vicarious nature of Galileo’s innovation first, the telescope did not introduce the notion of a mediated universe. As Ihde points out, science by its very nature uses experiments, samplings, and hypotheses to generate theoretical maps of how the surrounding world functions. Despite never having seen or touched our own brains or the influenza virus, we treat both as indisputable fact based on a handful of anatomical illustrations and microscope specimens. Science by its nature, then, promises us intimate knowledge of a realm that we cannot directly access. Even though none of us will ever experience the Milky Way as anything but a pale silver band across the night sky, strides in astronomy (enabled by the telescope) make us picture it not as an abstract silver band but as a side view of a slowly rotating spiral galaxy. As Husserl indicated, every science creates and leaves behind a spectral body of unseen entities and boundaries fused to our primary perception of the world.

This concept of vicarious reality has, of course, as equally deep a heritage in the visual arts as it does in science. From Greek drama to statues of Augustus, ancient works of art promised their audiences access to other planes of existence (the historical past, the Olympian heavens); Renaissance landscape painting granted Western Europeans visions of the Levant and the Far East long before these places would be feasible to visit. What makes Galilean astronomy such a unique bridge to modern visual culture is its reliance on graphic representation to convey a documentary truth. Confronted with a compellingly realistic and yet purely representational world, Galileo entered a virtual reality every time he peered into his eyepiece. He could anticipate travel to the mountains on the moon, but he was forced to rely on his imagination to furnish any further desired details of their formation or composition. He could note changes in the world that he observed (such as the shadows that defined the lunar phases), but he could never interact with them. The vicarious world that streamed through Galileo’s magic mirror created a mental construct of a real world that could never be touched or felt.

This limited window to the heavens would lead to any number of famous insights (Hubble’s determination of the expansion of the universe based on slight changes in coloration) and misunderstandings (Schiaparelli’s Martian canals) sparked by the smallest pieces of visual evidence. It is even possible that the fertile field of extraterrestrial fiction, from Scheherazade to Edgar Rice Burroughs and beyond, was prompted by the intense desire to conquer and interact with a world that could not yet be accessed. Today Galileo’s narrow vantage point to observe and explain Callisto has been expanded by the proliferation of astronomical instruments (satellites, space probes, spectroscopy, radio telescopes); even today the existence of that moon remains a virtual concept in the mind of every astronomer, an article of faith supported by many corroborative testimonies from various pieces of technology. This faith in a concealed but heavily reported corner of the universe has provided the basis for modern media culture: like our knowledge of the existence our own brains, we treat the subjects of news stories, movies, and family photos as absolute facts, even though we can no more interact with them than determine our own vantage point when viewing them. Like science fiction writers’ fetishization of the remote terrain of Mars, we have similarly come to obsess over the limitations of our photographs and footage (witness the endless parsing of the Zapruder Film). Galileo’s telescope crystallized the concept of a magic mirror, vicarious but real, in the modern mind.

Of course, the world Galileo saw through his telescope does not correspond perfectly with modern visual media. His instrument possessed practically none of the creative agency of future lens technologies (namely the camera). Its closest analog in contemporary visual culture would probably be the security camera impassively streaming a world of information from a fixed perspective—able to pan, tilt, and zoom, but never, for example, to rotate around its subject to reveal a previously concealed surface. In a world that increasingly associates visual media with interactivity, Galileo’s discovery may ultimately represent only one root in the foundation of our visual world. However, in creating the dynamic between an extremely close and impossibly aloof world, Galileo did experience a sensation that has accompanied visual culture ever since: his moons of Jupiter were (and remain today) no more tangible than the grassy knoll in Dallas on November 22, 1963—yet both appear before us as tantalizingly real.


1. ^ Ihde, Don. Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. 57. Print.
2. ^ Ibid, 57.

Author bio:

Clifford James Galiher received his B.A. in Film and Television Production and M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA, and he is currently a Ph.D. student in Critical Studies at USC. His research focuses primarily on film production in classic Hollywood, including a current project on the history of pre-digital visual effects. His other interests include animation, narrative studies, and digital media history, and he wishes he had the money to pursue his dream of ushering full-time.

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