An astronomer called Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes, the great Spanish author, tried to go to the Americas in more than one occasion. I wonder whether he would have been a Fulbright scholar if he would have lived in the modern times.  In the end he remained in Spain and he is buried in the convent Trinitarians nuns in Madrid, where there is a search now underway for his tomb. As well as his monumental work Don Quixote, which he himself considered the first modern novel, his extensive literary production included poetry and theater. It also appears that his scientific culture must have been considerable, as he kept in touch with the advances that were made at the start of the 17th century following the invention of the telescope. It is even possible that he made a significant scientific contribution, naming the satellites of the planet Jupiter, which were identified when Galileo Galilei, the revolutionary astronomer-physicist-mathematician from Pisa, pointed the new instrument to the sky.

Galileo discovered the jovian satellites in 1610, among several other key discoveries. As a good courtesan, he called them with the generic name of the Medicean Stars, after his master, Cossimo II of Medici, Duke of Tuscany,  and only provided roman numerals for each of them. Nowadays they are called Ganymede (the biggest and brightest), Calixto, Io and Europa, but at the beginning of the XVII a strong argument appeared between several important scientists and theologians regarding the nature and significance. These moons also played a key role in other aspects: from cartography to the determination of the speed of light.

But it seems that it was Cervantes, in a curious poem included in the short novel “La Gitanilla” (The little gypsy), one belonging to the twelve “Novelas Ejemplares” (Exemplary novels) who actually named them. The key part is:

    Junto a la casa del Sol
    va Júpiter; que no hay cosa
    difícil a la privanza
    fundada en prudentes obras.
    Va la Luna en las mejillas
    de una y otra humana diosa;
    Venus casta, en la belleza
    de las que este cielo forman.
    Pequeñuelos Ganimedes
    cruzan, van, vuelven y tornan
    por el cinto tachonado
    de esta esfera milagrosa.

The four final lines have an explicit meaning: the words “cruzan, van, vuelven y tornan” (“they cross, go, come back and do it again”) leaves little room for one’s imagination, and would refer to a relatively concise description of orbiting around Jupiter; while the last two lines, “por el cinto tachonado / de esta esfera milagrosa” (“by the gilded belt / of this miraculous sphere”) refers to the Ecliptic, the imaginary circle about which the planets move, and apparently the Sun, and the celestial sphere. Hence, it is written from an astronomical perspective, and not only from a mythological one.

Remarkably, Cervantes refers to the Jupiter’s satellites shortly after they were discovered, given that The Exemplary novels were published in 1613. Therefore, Cervantes, who had a very strong influence in the European literature and specially in the English plays, would not only the first person to write a novel – and an extraordinary one – in Spanish. Through his poetry, which was not always highly regarded, he would also have given a name to these four objects, the faint jovian moons that have helped to construct the picture of the world as we know it today.

But the story does not end here. Galileo accused the German astronomer Simon Marius of plagiarism, since Marius claimed co-discovery (he did it quite late, in 1614, and he is credited with the naming of these four satellites). Marius’ name was only cleaned three hundred years after the event. More about  this amazing plot here

David Barrado Navascués
Centro de Astrobiología (CAB), INTA-CSIC
European Space Astronomy Center (ESAC, Madrid)