Galileo Galilei is universally recognized the father of modern science. He was pioneer in forwarding the thought that it is possible for man to observe real world and hope to understand its functioning (Hawking, 189). This paved the way for further researches and explorations in science and helped to usher in the modern world that we see today.
Galileo is most famously remembered for his path breaking astronomical discoveries and invention of telescope. However he also virtually laid the foundation of field of mechanics and dynamics and emphasized mathematical proofs over mere theoretical arguments (Galileo Galilei, scienceworld). He studied falling bodies, cohesion, and anticipated the laws of motion that Sir Isaac Newton finally established subsequently.
The chief event in Galileo’s life was his confrontation with Roman Catholic Church over heliocentric theory of Nicholas Copernicus. Through his observations and calculations Galileo verified the truth of Copernican model that postulated a solar system with sun as center instead of earth. This was in grave contradiction to the earth centric model of universe that was held sacrosanct in Christian religious scriptures. Galileo was asked to renounce his theory and ended his days in home imprisonment by the orders of the Church.
Life History of Galileo Galilei; Early Life
Born at Pisa, Italy on 15th February 1564, Galileo was eldest of the 7 children in the family. Galileo was most intelligent among his siblings and was attracted to studies since beginning. The family moved to Florence in 1972 where Galileo turned towards priesthood but then he returned to back to Pisa completing his matriculation in 1581 from the University of Pisa (Drake, 16). Galileo’s father, Vencenzio was a distinguished musician and music theorist of his time. As a result Galileo too developed musical skills and was recognized as an outstanding lute player.
During his university years Galileo entered in confrontation with his professors over philosophy and teaching of Aristotle. He noticed that Aristotle’s theory of bodies falling on earth with velocity proportional to their masses was contrary to experimental observation. The famous story that Galileo climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa and threw down balls made of same material but weighing differently to prove that objects fall to ground with same velocity irrespective of their weight is almost certainly apocryphal (Cropper, 5). However Galileo did observe that hailstones of different size strike earth almost simultaneously after apparently falling through same height and time and contradicted thousands years old doctrine of Aristotle to much chagrin of leading intellectuals of Pisa (Drake 17).
Although his father wanted him to study medicine, Galileo was strongly drawn towards mathematics. He came in touch with court mathematician Ostilio Ricci who helped him to discover that his path run along the course of Mathematics and philosophy. Ultimately Galileo did not complete his university education and left the university in 1985 without a degree (Drake, 17).
Galileo’s inborn mathematical aptitude did not overshadow his artistic skills in any way. He was a notable draftsman, displayed great skills in drawing and was an excellent painter. In fact Rome’s best known painter of early seventeenth century, Ludovico Cigoli, considered Galileo as his teacher and inspiration (Artigas and Shea, 3).
Despite that Galileo did not complete his formal education he earned recognition and fame in intellectual circles due to his outstanding mathematical abilities. He gained prominence in eyes of eminent mathematicians and philosophers of Italy such as Marquis Guidobaldo del Monte and Christopher Clavius and it helped him to get a teaching post with prestigious University of Pisa in 1589 and finally with University of Padua in 1592 (Cropper, 6).
Galileo stayed in Padua from 1592 to 1610 and revolutionized science and scientific approach in these 18 years. This period marked his notable discoveries in astronomy and mechanics. He set the ‘time-squared’ law according to which the vertical distance that a body covers under free fall is proportional to square of the time of the fall (Cropper, 6). Galileo also carried out a number of experiments with motion of pendulum and discovered that a pendulum’s time of swing remained constant and it did not depend on the length of the arc through which it swung (Drake, 33). Around 1595, while trying to explain the mechanism of tides, he had his first encounter with astronomy that soon consumed his all attention and enterprise (Drake, 28).
At that time Nicholas Copernicus’ view that earth along with other planets move around the sun was known but not conclusively proved. Through his close proximity to the intellectual centers and his own profound intellect, Galileo was well aware of the fierce debates raging through philosophical and religious circles over Copernicus’s heliocentric model and ancient Greek’s philosopher Ptolemy’s earth centric conception of Universe that was also central to Christian dogma.
Galileo was already in ideological agreement with Copernican theory and when he developed telescope and turned it to observe celestial functioning he found overwhelming evidence in support of the Copernican model. For many years he continued to observe moon, phases of Venus, four moons of Jupiter and sunspots. He published his findings in 1610 in ‘The Starry Messenger’ that immediately became a celebrated piece throughout the Europe.
Support for Copernicus and Conflict with Church
From Padua Galileo moved to Florence as the chief mathematician and philosopher to the grand duke of Tuscany. Already convinced of the validity of Copernicus’ heliocentric model, Galileo started to publicly support this issue through scientific, observational and theological arguments (Cropper, 9). He published ‘Letter on the Sunspots’ in 1914 in which he officially supported the theory that earth is not the center of Universe and along with other planets it moved around Sun (Galileo Galilei, Stanford).
This was a dangerous position because it contravened the religious doctrines that held earth stationary, and did not admit scope of spots on sun or mountains on moon. Galileo soon found himself under criticism from religious authorities for heresy and asked to refrain from teaching or supporting Copernicus’ theory (Cropper, 9-10). However the Inquisition could not suppress the truth in Galileo’s voice and soon the master astronomer came out with publication of ‘The Assayer’ in 1923 in which he famously proclaimed that
“Philosophy is written in this grand book the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and to read the alphabet in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one wanders about in a dark labyrinth.” (Cropper, 10-11).
In the same year Galileo’s long time friend Maffeo Barberrini was elected as Pope Urban VIII and it encouraged him to seek pope’s support in lifting the ban from Copernican view. Meanwhile he also worked on his seminal book ‘Dialogues Concerning Two Chief World Systems’ which was published in 1929.
It soared in popularity until the Inquisition decided to ban the book in 1632 and put Galileo on trial for heresy. Although Galileo had vast number of influential friends in the Church and in the political system he could not escape the sentence of house imprisonment. In his imprisonment days he started working on his final masterpiece ‘Discourses on Two New Sciences’ that was completed in 1637 and smuggled out of Italy for publication. Galileo Galilei breathed his last on January 8, 1642.
Even during his lifetime Galileo had become the most famous name throughout Europe. He had single-handedly founded the modern structure of scientific quest and philosophy and had left a vast following behind him that took his ideas and work ahead.
In the field of science, Galileo made vast contributions through his experiments in mechanics and space observations. He was among the first one to realize that nature speaks mathematically and he set out to understand this language of nature. The mathematics and physics were still in their inchoate stages in those days, which makes work of Galileo even more monumental.
In the field of scientific philosophy Galileo conclusively demonstrated the significance of experiment and observation over mere theoretical assumptions. He refused to submit to age old theorems of Aristotle and boldly proceeded to show their inherent weaknesses. He took the same approach in bringing down the revered but fallacious universe model of Ptolemy. He was an eternal, even though if flamboyant, seeker of truth and stood for freedom of inquiry and knowledge against rigid religious scriptures.
Thus Galileo is not just the father of modern science but also of the modern society of rational thoughts, freedom of speech, and free flow of ideas. In the pantheons of great minds Galileo would be always ranked among the first ones.
- Artigas, M. and Shea, W.R. Galileo in Rome: The Rise and Fall of a Troublesome Genius. Oxford University Press. New York. 2003.
- Cropper, W.H. Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking.: Oxford University Press. New York. 2001.
- Drake, S. Galileo: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.: Oxford. Publication : 2001.
- Galileo Galilei. 4th march, 2005. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 27.10.2006. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/galileo/#3
- Galileo Galilei. scienceworld.wolfram.com. Wolfram Research. 26.10.2006. http://scienceworld.wolfram.com/biography/Galileo.html
- Hawking, S. A Brief History of Time: From the big bang to Black Holes Bantom Books: London. 1988.