An Australian boffin says that the planet Neptune may have actually been discovered 234 years earlier than had been thought, by the famed Renaissance Italian astronomer and scientist Galileo Galilei - who was persecuted by the Inquisition for his "heretical" astronomy research. Professor David Jamieson of Melbourne Uni says that proof for this theory may lie within a hidden coded message yet to be discovered.
Prof Jamieson says that Galileo's 400-year-old stargazing notebooks reveal that the 17th century boffinry all-rounder observed and recorded Neptune in the year 1613, while probing the Jovian moons. The notebooks show a "star" in a position where no star is to be found - but exactly where the gas giant Neptune, eighth and last true planet of the Solar System, would have been at the time.
"This unknown star was actually the planet Neptune. Computer simulations show the precision of his observations revealing that Neptune would have looked just like a faint star almost exactly where Galileo observed it," according to Prof Jamieson.
Planets, of course, move across the starry background of the night sky, making it relatively easy to separate the two classes of object even if they appear similar in a fairly basic telescope.
"On the night of January 28 in 1613 Galileo noted that the 'star' we now know is the planet Neptune appeared to have moved relative to an actual nearby star," says Jamieson.
The key to the prof's interpretation is a mysterious "black dot" found in Galileo's previous records for January 6. Jamieson thinks this is a notation intended to show that the "star" - actually Neptune - had been in a different place on the 6th.
"He went back in his notes to record where he saw Neptune earlier when it was even closer to Jupiter but had not previously attracted his attention because of its unremarkable star-like appearance," says Jamieson.
The fact that Galileo had realised the star was moving would mean that he also understood that he'd found a new planet, reasons the prof.
"Galileo may indeed have formed the hypothesis that he had seen a new planet which had moved right across the field of view during his observations of Jupiter over the month of January 1613," says Jamieson.
"If this is correct Galileo observed Neptune 234 years before its official discovery."
Verification for this theory could come from precise dating of the inks in the notebook. Results are expected later this year, but they may not be conclusive.
But there's another and more intriguing angle to be followed up: that of a mysterious, hidden cryptogram.
"Galileo was in the habit of sending a scrambled sentence, an anagram, to his colleagues to establish his priority for the sensational discoveries he made with his new telescope. He did this when he discovered the phases of Venus and the rings of Saturn. So perhaps somewhere he wrote an as-yet undecoded anagram that reveals he knew he discovered a new planet," Professor Jamieson speculated in a lecture given last week.
Some time after the period at which he may or may not have discovered Neptune, the great Renaissance boffin was investigated and later placed under house arrest by the Vatican's Holy Office - better known as the Inquisition. Galileo came under suspicion for correctly suggesting that the planets orbited the Sun rather than the Earth, a theory which the Catholic church at that time would have no truck with. The notion that the Sun, not the Earth, lay at the centre of the observed universe was known at the time as the "Copernican heresy".
Naturally, the more planets one sees the more one becomes convinced of the truth that the Vatican was seeking to cover up - much though that truth is written in the skies for those with the knowledge to read it. Thus it seems perfectly reasonable to us on the Reg astrohistory and conspiracy theory desk to suggest that what we're choosing to refer to as the "Galileo Cryptogram" was suppressed by the Inquisition. We also feel justified in hinting that copies of the Cryptogram, hidden by some kind of colourful secret society or schismatic cult (Templars, freemasons etc) may yet survive, probably in a hidden vault or archive yet to be discovered following an exciting international treasure-hunt pursuit by a mismatched hero and heroine with great teeth - pursued of course by modern descendants of the Contra-Copernican Conspiracy, perhaps operating nowadays as a secret deniable splinter cell within the Swiss Guard special forces.
What do you mean, legal problem? ®