Born February 15, 1564, Galileo Galilei is described as a polymath whose main fields of study included astronomy, physics, and engineering. He is widely considered to be the father of modern physics, modern science, the scientific method, and observable astronomy. As much as he accomplished during his life, he was seen as a controversial figure, with some of his theories surrounding Copernican heliocentrism putting him at odds with the Catholic Church. Travel back to a time when the Medicis ruled Florence, and see the kind of man that Galileo was and his impact on science as we know it.
He Didn’t Invent The Telescope
Although many people think that it was Galileo who invented the telescope, that’s not the case. In reality, it’s not exactly known who was the real inventor, although the Dutch spectacle maker Hans Lippershey is often given the credit since he applied for a patent in 1608.
A year later, Galileo obtained descriptions of the instrument and improved upon its design. By the time he was done, he had a telescope that could magnify 20 to 30 times. According to science historian Owen Gingerich, Galileo “turned a popular carnival toy into a scientific instrument.”
He Was A Skilled Artist
Galileo may best be known for his work as a scientist, yet he was skilled in many other disciplines as well. It is noted that Galileo was an incredibly gifted artist whose work was comparable to many of the masters of his time.
Known for being a master of perspective, art professor Samuel Edgerton comments that Galileo’s work shows “the deft brushstrokes of a practiced watercolorist […] an attractive, soft, and luminescent quality.” His art also had impressionistic elements, 250 years before Impressionism became popular.
He Had Children But Was Never Married
Galileo had a close relationship with a woman from Venice named Marina Gamba. The two shared two daughters and a son, although they were never married and never lived together.
In that time, it was common for scholars and scientists to remain single, and many believe that Galileo didn’t want having a wife to affect the way that people looked at his work. Furthermore, it’s also possible that class differences may have played a role in their unusual relationship.
He Never Graduated From School
In his youth, Galileo began studying at a monastery near Florence, playing with the idea of becoming a monk. His father, however, did not approve of his son dedicating his life to religion and took him out of the monastery.
At the suggestion of his father, Galileo enrolled at the University of Pisa to study medicine but found himself changing his focus to mathematics. In 1585, he left school without earning his degree and continued his study of mathematics on his own. He made a living giving private lessons before returning to the University of Pisa in 1589 as a teacher.
His Middle Finger Is On Display
After Galileo died, his body was buried in a chapel at the church of Santa Croce in Florence. Around a century later, his body was transferred to a place in the Santa Croce basilica. Yet, three of his fingers, a vertebra, and a tooth, were removed from his corpse.
The appendages were assumed to have been lost in the 1900s, with two of the fingers and the tooth appearing at an auction in 2009 and being bought by a private collector. The third finger, the middle on his right hand, has been featured on numerous museums in Italy since the first half of the 1800s.
A NASA Spacecraft Was Named After Him
In 1989, a team from Germany, along with NASA, named a spacecraft after Galileo. In 1995, the spacecraft arrived at Jupiter and became the first to study the planet and its moons for an extended period of time. This was only appropriate since the four moons of Jupiter were discovered by Galileo in 1610 with a telescope.
The spacecraft discovered salt water below the surface of three of Jupiter’s moons and volcanic activity on another. In 2003, the mission ended after the Galileo spaceship was intentionally crashed into Jupiter.
His Daughters Were Nuns
Despite Galileo’s future troubles with the Catholic Church, his two daughters, Virginia and Livia, were both placed in a convent near Florence when they were 12 and 13 years old. They would remain there for the rest of their lives.
Galileo had a close relationship with his eldest daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, who was known to cook and sew for him in the convent. In turn, Galileo would donate food and other supplies to the financially struggling nunnery. His son Vincenzo, on the other hand, studied medicine at the University of Pisa, married, and lived in Florence.
He Inspired Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton’s first law of motion was based on Galileo’s creation of the concept of inertia. Galileo claimed that an object in motion possesses inertia, which causes it to continue in a state of motion until it is stopped by an external force.
This discovery is yet another example of how far ahead of his time Galileo was, and why he is appropriately named “the father of modern physics” as well as “the father of modern science.”
An Interesting Name
There’s a reason that Galileo Galilei’s first name is almost identical to his last. This was the result of a 16th-century Tuscan naming tradition, in which the eldest son of a family is named after the last name of his parents.
Galileo’s family changed their last name from Bonaiuti to Galilei to honor an ancestor named Galileo Bonaiuti, who was a physician, professor, and politician in the 15th century. Furthermore, the Italian name Galileo is a reference to a biblically important region in Northern Israel.
He Was Wrong About Ocean Tides
While Galileo is known for his successes, that didn’t mean that he was right about everything. Something he got completely wrong was the cause of ocean tides. In his essay “Discourse on the Tides,” Galileo theorized that the Earth’s rotation is what caused the changing of tides.
However, his idea never caught on, as it didn’t explain how here could be multiple high tides in a single day. It wasn’t until later that it was concluded that the gravitational pull of the Sun and Moon were the cause. At the end of his essay, Galileo admitted that his theory had some faults and hoped further research would provide more information.
He Discovered The Moons Of Jupiter
Galileo is famous for his discovery of the moons of Jupiter. Using his telescope, on January 7, 1610, he discovered three objects around the planet that he believed to be stars. Finding a fourth days later, he realized that the objects weren’t stars orbiting the planet.
He named the unknown bodies after his patron, Cosimo II de Medici, and his brothers. Today, the moons are known as Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. The discovery of the moons pushed Galileo further toward a heliocentric view of our universe in which the Sun was at the center, not the Earth.
It’s Unlikely He Dropped Anything From The Leaning Tower Of Pisa
One of the most famous stories about Galileo was that he conducted an experiment at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Supposedly, he dropped two different objects of different weights from the top to prove that objects dropped from the same height fall to the ground at the same speed.
This would disprove Aristotle’s belief that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. However, there was only one account of this experiment being performed, which was written years after the fact. It’s assumed that this story is most likely a myth.
The International Year of Astronomy
In 2009, in honor of the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s discoveries of his telescope and the release of Johannes Kepler’s book Astronomia Nova, the United Nations dubbed the year the International Year of Astronomy.
Throughout 2009, events were held across the world to express the significance of astronomy and to promote scientific education. On October 7, 2009, the White House held the White House Astronomy Night. More than 20 telescopes were places across the South Lawn of the White House which also included displays about outer space.
He Inherited His Father’s Financial Woes
One of the driving forces that caused Galileo to try his hand at numerous scientific disciplines was his father’s death. Not only did Galileo lose his father, but he also inherited some of his financial burdens, one of these being caring for his younger brother, Michelangelo.
On top of looking after and financially supporting his brother’s passion for music, he also had to help pay unpaid dowries to his brothers-in-law. Thankfully, Galileo’s hard work paid off, and he grew wealthy from his work.
He Was Once On Good Terms With The Catholic Church
Before everything went south between Galileo and the Catholic Church, the Vatican actually supported Galileo’s research of the cosmos. The information he provided helped the church establish exact dates for Easter and other religious holidays.
He visited Rome in 1611 to demonstrate his telescope and was met with awe and admiration. Pope Urban VIII even read one of Galileo’s essays and wrote a positive poem about him. Of course, this didn’t last for long, and Galileo soon became at odds with the church.
He Was Sentenced To Life In Prison
When Copernicus came out with his heliocentric theory about the universe, it went against the common belief that the Earth was at the center of the solar system. In 1616, the Catholic Church deemed this theory to be heresy because it went against the Bible. Yet, Galileo was still given permission to study Copernicus’ work as long as he did not defend or promote his theory.
Nevertheless, in 1632, he published “Dialogue of the Two Principal Systems of the World,” which was seen as supporting Copernicus’ view of the universe. The next year, Galileo was forced to stand trial before the Inquisition in Rome. There, he was found guilty of heresy and sentenced to life in prison.
He Was On House Arrest Until His Death
While Galileo may have been sentenced to life in prison, that wasn’t exactly his punishment (luckily for him). Instead, he was sentenced to house arrest, where he lived out his final years at his home in Arcetri, near Florence. Although he was not allowed to see friends or publish any more works, he was visited by people throughout Europe such as philosopher Thomas Hobbes and poet John Milton.
He also succeeded in secretly publishing “Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Concerning Two New Sciences” about physics and engineering. His final work was published in 1638, the year he went blind, and he died on January 8, 1642, at the age of 77.
The Church Eventually Apologized
In the centuries that followed Galileo’s trial and imprisonment, many popes from the Roman Catholic Church have tried to clear his name and make right for what had been done to him. In 1979, Pope John Paul II launched an investigation into the church’s treatment of Galileo.
Thirteen years later, in 1992, 359 years after Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, the pope closed the case and issued an apology, admitting that there were several errors made by the judges during his trial.
He Didn’t Like Rules, Even As A Young Man
Considering that Galileo was sentenced to life in prison by the Catholic Church, it’s clear that he didn’t conform to what people wanted. His issues with the church weren’t the only instance of this, either. Back when he was a young professor at the University of Pisa, Galileo ran into a little bit of trouble with authority.
The university’s rules stated that as a professor, Galileo was to wear his formal robes at all times. He refused, thinking it was a ridiculous rule, and wore his own clothes instead. For his defiance, the university docked his pay.
He Helped The Military
Galileo is also revered for his contributions to engineering, with one of his most notable achievements being the creation and improvement of geometric and military compasses. Gunners and surveyors primarily used these. For gunners, the compass aided in establishing a new and safer way to elevate cannons accurately and administering the correct amount of gunpowder for cannonballs of different sizes and materials.
When used as a geometric instrument, it helped in the construction of any polygon as well as the computation of any polygon or circular sector. Also, he also invented an early version of the thermometer, using the expansion and contraction of air in a bulb that moves water in a tube.