Galileo the artist, or Galileo the scientist? Burlington County College students have been enlisted to test the findings of one of the world's great scientists.
Greg Perugini, a physics lecturer, had been skeptical of the Italian astronomer's paintings of the moon in his 1610 Sidereus Nuncius - "Starry Messenger" - famous for the use of a telescope for scientific observation.
Perugini didn't accuse the father of modern astronomy of lying, exactly. But he wasn't sure Galileo's detailed paintings were exactly true.
"How could he possibly do this? Such a small eyepiece, such a small aperture, with lenses of the day . . . could he paint what they say he painted? What he published?" Perugini asked.
"My first instinct said no way. Pretty detailed. He cheated, or he sketched it or something, took it back and gave it to one of his artist friends or something."
Perugini decided to find out, and an undergraduate, interdisciplinary research project was born.
Equipped with Galileo's notes on the lenses he ground himself and photos of replica telescopes, Perugini enlisted the help of three engineering students.
Using a 3D printer donated to the college last year, the students made simple telescopes based on Galileo's design: two lenses separated by a barrel.
There was a lot of trial-and-error, which two communications students documented.
An eyepiece that didn't quite work: tossed. A barrel design that was too uniform: tapered.
Six iterations and a box full of black plastic close-but-not-quite pieces later, the students had a working model.
They 3D-printed telescopes for the project, and Perugini began recruiting art students without telling them what they were signing up for.
He didn't want them to cheat, after all.
"We wanted to keep it clear. Pure science. So they didn't know they were even looking at the moon, let alone at these telescopes, let alone at these pictures," Perugini said.
The six art students knew only that they were waiting this month for some sort of perfect conditions to paint a celestial body. Or something.
"So the week before, I'm lining up, saying, 'Can you make it for viewing tonight? When can you make it?' . . . That's all they knew," he said. "When they show up, we have candlelight. They didn't even know they were doing it that way."
Candlelight because Galileo had no electricity. Brushes like the horsehair ones Galileo used. Sepia ink, rag linen paper, and, of course, the replica telescopes with their tiny apertures, giving the artists just a small viewing area at a time.
"It was a lot like those puzzles where you have nine squares, but one of them is missing, and you have to move the puzzle around," said Helen Harcharek, 23, a second-year art and astronomy student from Maple Shade.
"You can only see the moon one corner at a time, so that part was difficult . . . you can't see the whole picture at one time, so your perspective is off."
Perugini also worked with two art teachers - a control group of sorts - who did the same thing. Like Perugini, who also took a crack at it, the teachers knew they were trying to replicate Galileo's paintings.
The resulting paintings, student and faculty alike, contained similar depth of detail. But Perugini also found the paintings all very different in what they actually portrayed.
"I got a surprise. In a sense, they were able to do detail. And, in fact, I was able to do detail," he said.
"One of the interesting things is that everyone's looking at the same image, but everyone saw something different. There's a psychology of this I didn't expect."
Perugini is still not sure whether Galileo really saw what he painted, but the students' paintings show that Galileo's level of detail is not out of the realm of possibility.
Last week, they brought the telescopes out again for another round, this time painting a full moon.
A third phase of the project Perugini did not initially expect will involve further tweaking the telescopes this summer and exploring scientific observation vs. artistic license.
When they're finished, Perugini hopes to publish the findings to give the students interdisciplinary research experience.
"Whether [Galileo] cheated or not is not a question so much. He could have done it. The question really is, how much of it was his mind's eye and how much of this painting he did is artistry vs. science?" Perugini said. "He wanted to perhaps see those things more than maybe he could in those telescopes and perhaps over-illustrate as an artist, take over a little bit more than the science."
That wouldn't surprise Bill Stewart, who teaches art, anatomy, and physiology classes at Burlington County College.
"Even the guys back in Galileo's day who were doing stuff like this - he wasn't the only one - they would also paint it in their own individual way," said Stewart, one of the control-group art teachers. "Galileo had to have some subjectivity in his drawings, even though they're outstanding."
And they are outstanding, the art students said. After experiencing the frustration of the telescopes themselves and learning what they were replicating, the students gained an appreciation for history, science, and pioneers in their fields.
"People don't look back enough and really appreciate how he even captured the moon from that way, in such detail. And we take for granted that we know what the moon looks like . . . I think we forget where we've come from," said Heather Lentz, 25, a second-year graphic design major from Browns Mills.
"It gives me a lot more respect for him as an artist and scientist," she said. "I couldn't make that telescope. Kudos for Galileo."