Where the senses fail us, reason must step in.

Galileo Galilei

Where the senses fail us, reason must step in.
Galileo Galilei

Considered the father of modern science, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) made major contributions to the fields of physics, astronomy, cosmology, mathematics and philosophy. He invented an improved telescope that let him observe and describe the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the phases of Venus, sunspots and the rugged lunar surface. His flair for self-promotion earned him powerful friends among Italy’s ruling elite and enemies among the Catholic Church’s leaders. His advocacy of a heliocentric universe brought him before religious authorities in 1616 and again in 1633, when he was forced to recant and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa in 1564, the first of six children of Vincenzo Galilei, a musician and scholar. In 1581 he entered the University of Pisa to study medicine, but was soon sidetracked by mathematics. In 1583 he made his first important discovery, describing the rules that govern the motion of pendulums.

After being forced during his trial to admit that the Earth was the stationary center of the universe, Galileo allegedly muttered, “Eppur si muove!” (“Yet it moves!” ). The first direct attribution of the quote to Galileo dates to 125 years after the trial, though it appears on a wall behind him in a 1634 Spanish painting commissioned by one of Galileo’s friends.

From 1589 to 1610, Galileo was chair of mathematics at the universities of Pisa and then Padua. During those years he performed the experiments with falling bodies that made his most significant contribution to physics.

n 1609 Galileo built his first telescope, improving upon a Dutch design. In January of 1610 he discovered four new “stars” orbiting Jupiter—the planet’s four largest moons. He quickly published a short treatise outlining his discoveries, “Siderius Nuncius” (“The Starry Messenger”), which also contained observations of the moon’s surface and descriptions of a multitude of new stars in the Milky Way. In an attempt to gain favor with the powerful grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II de Medici, he suggested Jupiter’s moons be called the “Medician Stars.”

“The Starry Messenger” made Galileo a celebrity in Italy. Cosimo II appointed him mathematician and philosopher to the Medicis, offering him a platform for proclaiming his theories and ridiculing his opponents.

Galileo’s observations contradicted the Aristotelian view of the universe, then widely accepted by both scientists and theologians. The moon’s rugged surface went against the idea of heavenly perfection, and the orbits of the Medician stars violated the geocentric notion that the heavens revolved around Earth.

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October 2021


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