The summer of 2009 sees the 400th anniversary of Galileo's development of the telescope. As BBC Four Television starts its Medieval Season, I reflected on how Galileo helped changed mankind's world view from Medieval to Renaissance. While he was being given formal notice of torture by the catholic/Catholic authorities for daring to suggest that the earth was not at the centre of the universe, Shakespeare, the product of the medieval world view, was planting his feet firmly in Renaissance thought. 'What a piece of work is Man', said Hamlet, 'In apprehension, how like a god!' (I know these two weren't exactly contemporaneous, actually about 33 years apart, but you get the idea.)
If you're getting bored now, just skip to the link at the end (highlighted text). It's worth it.
It's impossible to know what in Shakespeare's plays reflect his true beliefs; on the one hand, the idea of the Universe in the plays is very medieval. Of course, Shakespeare would have learned of the revelations offered by telescopes only at the very end of his writing career. He seems to have had a medieval view of most things; a firm belief in kingship, and his only revealed attitudes to suicide were conventionally contemporary. Contrast that with the man who could have been as great as Shakespeare had he lived, Kit Marlowe, a known atheist and sodomite, both criminally unconventional.
(And, no, I don't really care if Shakespeare was really Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, or the Caliph of Timbuktu. His work is his monument.)
Ever since Galileo, we have had an ever-expanding view (quite literally), of the universe in which we live, but this has gathered incredible pace in the last half-century. As late as the 1930s, over 300 years after the moon's surface was first seen in detail, encyclopædiae were declaring the Milky Way as the full extent of the universe. How different now!
And soon, we will all be able to share in the wonder of this: next year, to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy, Microsoft has announced a project called World Telescope, which will do for the universe what Google earth has done for terra firma. Only more so. This incredible project is taking images from all the telescopes in the world, and creating a seamless journey wherever you want to go; zoom across the galaxy from one star to another, from a red dwarf to the edge of a black hole, just like zooming across the Atlantic in Google Earth.
It's not launched yet, but you can find out all about World Telescope from the absolutely superb ted.com. Watch the video, and marvel.