When Galileo Discovered Saturn’s Ears

By Morris M. on Friday, August 30, 2013
“On Saturn, people live to be two hundred and five.” —Stevie Wonder

In A Nutshell

In 1613, Italian astronomer Galileo turned his telescope to Saturn. Not realizing that the shape around the equator was the planet’s rings, he naturally concluded that Saturn had ears.

The Whole Bushel

It’s easy to forget now how difficult stargazing was in the early 17th century. The first telescope had only been constructed in 1608 and even Galileo’s best designs only gave a magnification 30 times greater than the naked eye. It’s thanks to these limitations that the great astronomer made his biggest (and most hilarious) error.

In 1610, Galileo had already proved that the Moon wasn’t smooth, that the sun had spots, and that Jupiter had moons. Doubtlessly flush with confidence, he now turned his telescope to distant Saturn—and entered a world of confusion.

“Saturn” appeared to be made of three connected objects: a giant central disc and two smaller ones protruding from the sides (not unlike a famous, modern mouse-shaped logo). Unsure what to make of this, Galileo tried again in 1612, only to discover that the smaller discs had seemingly vanished. When he checked back up on this mysterious planet the following year, the discs had reappeared. It’s at this point that one of the greatest scientists who ever lived famously declared that Saturn had “ears.”

It didn’t take long to prove him wrong. Fast forward to 1655 and Christiaan Huygens became the first human being to correctly identify Saturn’s rings. But for four decades the best guess one of our planet’s greatest minds could muster was that Saturn was the intergalactic equivalent of the Mickey Mouse logo, wiggling its way through space a million miles away. By contrast, the rings themselves are almost a disappointment.

Show Me The Proof

National Geographic: Finding Saturn’s Ears
Saturn all ears in heavenly I-spy