Galileo Galilei was a pioneer of modern science during a time period that revolved around religion, causing the great debate of religion versus science. His effect on his time period changed how people thought about the world and introduced science to everyone, rather than just the wealthy. His lasting accomplishments have made him one of the most influential scientists in world history. He made astounding discoveries in astronomy, mathematics, and physics; many of which are still used today.
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Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa, Italy in 1564. He was born to a noble family but had financial struggles which his father, an accomplished lutenist, tried to fix by giving music lessons (Fermi, 1996). Galileo had displayed an exemplary ability to learn at an early age, and his father decided that Galileo should attend the University of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany (Fermi, 1996). During his time at school, Galileo became interested in natural processes and science, and his life as one of the most renowned scientists ever had begun.
During the 16th and 17th centuries when Galileo lived, the Scientific Revolution was slowly gaining more influence. The revolution began with Nicolas Copernicus with his heliocentric ideas and ended with Sir Isaac Newton and the discovery of multiple natural laws (Hatch, 2002). The reason this explosion of scientific discovery was known as a “revolution” was due to the radical ideas that scientists had put forth in relation to the ideas the Church had established in Western civilization. Before the Scientific Revolution began, the general understanding of the world was solely based on religion. The Revolution allowed people to replace their religious belief with facts and reason. This was not an easy transition, however, because religion and science have opposing ideals and during the Scientific Revolution these ideals clashed.
The Roman Catholic Church, the largest and most influential Christian Church throughout history, had massive influence in Western civilization in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Church dominated most of the Western social life as their interpretation of the bible was the only accepted explanation to natural occurrences in the world (Hatch, 2002). Most scientific theories at the time were proposed by theologians, and all science that was taught was through the texts of these theologians and was universally accepted as true (Newall, 2005). Aristotle and Ptolemy were also referenced heavily in the Church. Church influence had begun to wane early in the 1500s, however, because of the Protestant Revolution and the rise of scientific theories proposed by scientists. These scientists, such as Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei, had done experiments and discovered that their results didn’t match up with the Church’s results. This led to a conflict between scientific and theological science (Newall, 2005).
The beginning of the differences between accepted scientific laws given by the Church and the actual scientists began with the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and his De Revolutionibus, a book that explained that the earth revolved around the sun. Copernicus was timid about publishing the book because it went against almost 1400 years of the belief that the earth was the center of the universe, and the sun revolved around it (Fermi, 1996). Unfortunately for Copernicus, his book was very difficult to understand and did not gain any popularity. The small group of scientists that could understand Copernicus’ book would usually lecture about it, as it proposed more factual evidence as opposed to the theological teachings (Fermi, 1996). These scientists who agreed with Copernicus were known as Copernicans, and sought to spread his ideas. One of the most prominent Copernicans was Galileo Galilei.
Before Galileo began his research on the Copernican Theory, he conducted experiments on laws of motion. Galileo was taught Aristotelian science, which was very inaccurate at the time. Galileo believed that Aristotle’s theory that objects fall according to their weight was false, so he publicly demonstrated an experiment where he dropped a large ball and a small ball from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, noting that they landed at about the same time (Drake, 1980). Galileo states the difference in his experiment and Aristotle’s in his book De Motu (meaning “On Motion”), stating “Aristotle says that a hundred-pound ball falling from a height of a hundred cubits hits the ground before a one-pound ballâ€¦ I say they arrive at the same time. You find, on making the test, that the larger ball beats the smaller one by two inchesâ€¦ Speaking only of my tiny error, remain silent about his enormous mistake (Drake, 1980).” Galileo called this the “Law of Falling Bodies,” stating that objects fall with the same acceleration (Drake, 1980). This was the precursor to Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, which is still accepted today. Galileo made other great strides in physics and mathematics before he moved onto different subjects in science.
Galileo has shown his mathematical skill when he created his military compass, or sector. This sector consisted of two rulers and an axis, and was used for many mathematical calculations (Fermi 1996). The sector was able to do many mathematical problems similar to our calculators today. During the sixteenth century, when there were many wars going on, it was especially helpful in military situations, such as figuring the formation of an army, the weight and arc of a cannonball, or the incline of certain environments (Fermi, 1996). This led to the sector being known as the military compass.
In the early 1600s Galileo became interested in the invention of the early magnifying glass. He attempted to make his own version of the magnifying glass, and according to Stillman Drake (1996), he “reasoned that one of the two lenses must be convex and the other concave, and on fitting such a spectacle lenses in a lead tube he found that it worked” (pg. 46). His first magnifying glass was powerful enough to see ships approaching a couple of hours before they could be seen by the naked eye (Drake, 1980). After many hours of grinding and experimenting with different lenses, Galileo was able to create the first telescope. With his telescope, which was incredibly powerful for the time period, Galileo began his career as an astronomer.
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In May of 1609, Galileo used his telescope to look at the moon. He discovered that, contrary to everyone’s belief, the moon had mountains and craters all over it. Soon by January 1610, he had improved his telescope to be able to see Jupiter. Galileo noticed objects revolving around Jupiter and discovered them as moons (Shea, 2003). This was a huge step for Galileo in proving that the earth revolved around the sun and that the earth had a moon that revolved around it. After Galileo made his discovery, he published an article, saying:
Here we have a powerful and elegant argument to remove the doubts of those who accept without difficulty that the planets revolve around the sun in the Copernican system, but are so disturbed to see the Moon alone revolve around the earth while accompanying it in its annual revolution about the Sunâ€¦ our eyes show us four stars that wander around Jupiter, as does the Moon around the earth and these stars together with Jupiter describe a large circle around the Sun in a period of twelve years. (Shea, 1993)
As Galileo observed the skies more frequently, he made more discoveries that proved Copernicanism was correct. While he made these discoveries, the Church had begun to persecute Galileo.
Galileo’s work was censored by the Church while he published, so many of his studies weren’t completely published. The reason that Galileo was persecuted as opposed to other scientists before him was because of his ability to write in common Italian (as opposed to Latin) in a popular tone. This allowed everyone from scientists to bakers to read his works, and his works became immensely popular and were translated into several languages (Fermi, 1996). Because these works were so popular, it weakened the Church’s influence rapidly, forcing them to put Galileo under house arrest for the rest of his life.
Galileo lived almost 400 years ago, but his contributions to science and astronomy have made a lasting impression on our world today. His creation of the telescope and his studies of the universe completely revolutionized how we view space, and without him it might have taken longer for mankind discover the earth revolves around the sun. Galileo was also able to make great strides in physics, such as discovering that everything that falls will fall at a uniform rate. Many people credit Newton with discovering this law of physics as it is stated as Newton’s First Law of Motion, but Galileo was the one responsible for creating the first experiments to prove the law true. Galileo was also one of the first scientists to take a stand against theological thinking and promote scientific evidence, which is still a conflict that exists today. Considering Galileo’s accomplishments throughout his life, he is one of the most important and influential scientists in world history.