Galileo’s illusion solved by New York vision researchers

Portrait of Galileo Galilei, 1605-1607, by Domenico Tintoretto. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Foundation.

Portrait of Galileo Galilei, 1605-1607, by Domenico Tintoretto. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Foundation.

It was 1632, and the father of modern astronomy was perplexed as to why Venus, when observed by “naked” eye, would appear substantially larger than Jupiter, which was actually four times larger than Venus. He knew that Venus’ exaggerated size must have something to do with it’s halo, or “radiant crown” as he described it, and that this halo must have something to do with his eyes, and not the celestial objects themselves. Observations via telescope presented a more accurate visual representation of the mathematically-verifiable proportions of the planets.

Almost 400 years later, Neuroscientists Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik, eloquently explain the January 2014 published findings of the State University of New York’s vision researchers Jens Kremkow, Jose Manuel Alonso and Qasim Zaidi:

By examining the responses of neurons in the visual system of the brain—to both light stimuli and dark stimuli—the neuroscientists discovered that, whereas dark stimuli result in a faithful neural response that accurately represents their size, light stimuli on the contrary result in non-linear and exaggerated responses that make the stimulus look larger. So white spots on a black background look bigger than same-sized black spots on white background, and Galileo’s glowing moons are not really as big as they might appear to the unaided eye.

These now-isolated differences in how our photoreceptors operate also explain why it is easier to read black text on a white page, than to read white text on a black page, a topic of interest to our typographer and font designer friends.

Do you love Galileo as much as we do? Check out the GLIMPSE Cosmos issue, available in our archives.


GLIMPSE journal is an interdisciplinary supercollider of works that examine the functions, processes, and effects of vision and its implications for being, knowing, and constructing our world(s). Each theme-focused issue features articles, visual essays, interviews, and reviews spanning the physical sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities. GLIMPSE contributors are leading and emerging scholars, researchers, scientists and artists from around the world. Some of our contributors are independent thinkers and doers with no formal institutional affiliations, and others are affiliated with the most respected research institutions in the world. Read all about them.

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