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Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) is considered the father of modern experimental science. He pioneered dynamics as an exact science of motion, and through the use of the telescope he demonstrated the validity of the Copernican thesis in the face of denial from Aristotelian academics and Roman Catholic theologians.
Galileo was born in Pisa 15 February 1564, the first of the six children of Vincenzo Galilei, a Florentine merchant and part-time musician. At the age of eleven he was sent to the Camaldolese School in Vallombrosa, and except for his father’s opposition he would have become a monk. In 1581 he entered the University of Pisa to pursue a medical degree, but he soon developed a far greater interest in mathematics. With his father’s reluctant consent, he abandoned medicine. Leaving the university without a degree, he led an impecunious existence from 1585 to 1589, scraping together teaching assignments in mathematics. During these years he published his first book, The Little Balance, inspired by his study of the mathematician Archimedes. It described a hydrostatic balance he had invented to measure the specific gravity of objects.
In 1589, with the recommendation of German Jesuit mathematician Christopher Clavius and fame achieved through lectures at the Florentine Academy, Galileo obtained an appointment at the University of Pisa, where for the next three years he taught mathematics based on the prevailing Aristotelian and Ptolemaic beliefs. In 1592 Galileo secured a more prestigious appointment at the University of Padua, in the Republic of Venice. His eighteen years at Padua, where he taught Euclid’s geometry and Ptolemaic astronomy, were the happiest of his life. During ten of these years, he had a relationship with a Venetian woman, with whom he had three children, a boy and two girls.
Galileo began investigating the Copernican theory in the early 1590s. In a letter to Johannes Kepler in 1597 he said that he had been a believer in Copernicanism for many years, but fear of ridicule prevented him from openly expressing his views. However, in 1604, when a new star appeared, Galileo began lecturing against Aristotle’s astronomy. About the same time, he resumed an earlier study on motion, and using inclined planes, concluded that objects fell at the same speed regardless of weight.
In 1609 Galileo perfected a telescope that had been invented by a Dutch optician and used it to point out the fallacy of the geocentric theory. In his first major scientific publication, The Starry Messenger (1610), written in Italian instead of the traditional Latin, he described the lunar mountains, the Milky Way, and the satellites of Jupiter. To flatter Cosimo II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, Galileo dedicated the book to him, in the hope that a major appointment in Florence would follow. He was not disappointed: Cosimo named him “Chief Mathematician and Philosopher.” In 1611 Galileo visited Rome, where the Academy of Lynxes, composed of the scientific elite, invited him to become a member, and the Collegio Romano honored him with a dinner.
Shortly after publishing in 1612–1613 his Discourse on Falling Bodies and Letters on Sunspots, Galileo entered the growing debate on the relationship between the Copernican or heliocentric thesis and the Scriptures, which supported the Ptolemaic, geocentric theory. In Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (mother of Cosimo II) Galileo stated that a figurative interpretation of the Scriptures was necessary because physical reality demonstrated that the sun was the center of the universe. Galileo was entering the theological domain at a time when the Counter-Reformation was at its height and the reigning pope, Paul V (papacy 1605–1621), was hostile to new ideas.
In 1616 the Holy Office (the Inquisition) unequivocally condemned the Copernican theory. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, the pope’s Jesuit theologian and an adviser to the Holy Office, was delegated to inform Galileo in person that he was forbidden to teach or defend Copernicanism either orally or in writing. But as Galileo seems to have understood, there could be a discussion of Copernicanism as a mathematical construct, but not as a philosophical truth. Accordingly Galileo carried on an extensive correspondence on this subject with his supporters throughout Europe. His daughter, Sister Marie Celeste, who lived in nearby Arcetri, was very supportive and became a major presence in his life.
In 1623 Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, an old friend of Galileo’s and a noted patron of the arts, was elected pope, taking the name of Urban VIII (papacy 1623–1644). Barberini as pope was far less receptive to Copernicanism than he had been as cardinal. In his audiences with Galileo, Urban clearly stated that God was omnipotent and that to speak of Copernicanism as other than hypothetical was to deny divine omnipotence.
Between 1624 and 1630 Galileo wrote the book that would lead to his condemnation by the Holy Office, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World: Ptolemaic and Copernican. Published in Florence in 1632, the Dialogue represents Galileo as the epitome of the Renaissance man, reflecting as it does his ideas as an astronomer, physicist, and humanist. The book took the form of a discussion among three philosophers, one who ably defended Copernicanism, another who acted as a facilitator, and the third who ineptly supported the Ptolemaic thesis. Written in Italian in a popular style, the book speedily attracted a wide readership. The Holy Office ordered Galileo to appear in Rome on “suspicion of heresy.” His trial, which began April 1633, ended 22 June 1633 with the Holy Office judging him guilty of the “suspicion of heresy.” The condemnation was based primarily on his failure to abide by the Holy Office’s injunction of 1616. For reasons that remain unclear, Galileo signed an abjuration. He was sentenced to imprisonment at the pleasure of the Holy Office and to the recitation of the penitential psalms once a week for three years. The sentence was subsequently commuted to house arrest in Arcetri.
Galileo spent the rest of his life in relative seclusion, beset by poor health and blindness. Nevertheless, he managed to have published in Holland in 1638 his Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Concerning the Two New Sciences, in which he developed his ideas on the acceleration of bodies in free fall. He died 8 January 1642 and was buried in the Church of Santa Croce.
In 1979 Pope John Paul II reopened the case of Galileo. In 1992, on the basis of the report of the investigating commission, he declared that the theologians had been mistaken in condemning Galileo. Thus nearly four hundred years after his condemnation, Galileo was vindicated. In the interval he had affected an intellectual revolution that provided the basis for modern science.
- Biagioli, M. (1993). Galileo courtier. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Reston, J. (1994). Galileo: A life. New York: HarperCollins.
- Rowland, W. (2003). Galileo’s mistake: A new look at the epic confrontation between Galileo and the church. New York: Arcade Publishing.
- De Santillana, G. (1955). The crime of Galileo. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Shea, W. R., & Artigas, M. (2003). Galileo in Rome. New York: Oxford.
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