Watching the stars with the eye of Galileo

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It looked like the kind of toy telescope a child might have made with scissors and tape — a lumpy, mottled tube about as long as a golf club and barely wider in girth, the color of 400-year-old cardboard.

But near one knobby end was a bit of writing that sent Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer of the Franklin Institute here, into rapture.

The tube's focal length is "piedi 3," the inscription said, or 3 feet. It was in the hand of Galileo, one of history's great troublemakers. "Absolutely amazing," Mr. Pitts said.

Thus did Galileo Galilei, the astronomer and mathematician, come to America.

Only two of the dozens of telescopes Galileo built in his lifetime survive. Neither of them have ever been out of Florence since Galileo's time, until this week, when Giorgio Strano, curator at the Instituto e Museo Nazionale di Storia della Scienza, escorted this humble tube to the Franklin Institute.

Scholars do not know when Galileo built this particular telescope, or what he saw with it, but it still has its original optics.

The telescope will be the centerpiece of "Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy," which opens April 4 at the Franklin Institute. The show runs until September.

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