Photo: Peter Paul Rubens / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Born: February 15, 1564
Born Place: Pisa, Italy
Died: January 8, 1642
Death Place: Arcetri, Italy
Education: University of Pisa
Known for: Analytical dynamics, heliocentrism, kinematics, observational astronomy
Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaulti de Galilei (15 February 1564 – 8 January 1642) was an Italian astronomer, physicist and engineer, sometimes described as a polymath, from Pisa. Galileo has been called the “father of observational astronomy”, the “father of modern physics”, the “father of the scientific method”, and the “father of modern science”.
Galileo studied speed and velocity, gravity and free fall, the principle of relativity, inertia, projectile motion and also worked in applied science and technology, describing the properties of pendulums and “hydrostatic balances”, inventing the thermoscope and various military compasses, and using the telescope for scientific observations of celestial objects. His contributions to observational astronomy include the telescopic confirmation of the phases of Venus, the observation of the four largest satellites of Jupiter, the observation of Saturn’s rings, and the analysis of sunspots.
Galileo’s championing of heliocentrism and Copernicanism was controversial during his lifetime, when most subscribed to geocentric models such as the Tychonic system. He met with opposition from astronomers, who doubted heliocentrism because of the absence of an observed stellar parallax. The matter was investigated by the Roman Inquisition in 1615, which concluded that heliocentrism was “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture”.
Galileo later defended his views in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), which appeared to attack Pope Urban VIII and thus alienated both the Pope and the Jesuits, who had both supported Galileo up until this point. He was tried by the Inquisition, found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, and forced to recant. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest. While under house arrest, he wrote Two New Sciences, in which he summarized work he had done some forty years earlier on the two sciences now called kinematics and strength of materials.
EARLY LIFE AND FAMILY
Galileo was born in Pisa (then part of the Duchy of Florence), Italy, on 15 February 1564, the first of six children of Vincenzo Galilei, a lutenist, composer, and music theorist, and Giulia (née Ammannati), who had married in 1562. Galileo became an accomplished lutenist himself and would have learned early from his father a scepticism for established authority, the value of well-measured or quantified experimentation, an appreciation for a periodic or musical measure of time or rhythm, as well as the results expected from a combination of mathematics and experiment.
Three of Galileo’s five siblings survived infancy. The youngest, Michelangelo (or Michelagnolo), also became a lutenist and composer although he contributed to financial burdens during Galileo’s young adulthood. Michelangelo was unable to contribute his fair share of their father’s promised dowries to their brothers-in-law, who would later attempt to seek legal remedies for payments due. Michelangelo would also occasionally have to borrow funds from Galileo to support his musical endeavours and excursions. These financial burdens may have contributed to Galileo’s early desire to develop inventions that would bring him additional income.
When Galileo Galilei was eight, his family moved to Florence, but he was left with Jacopo Borghini for two years. He was educated from 1575 to 1578 in the Vallombrosa Abbey, about 30 km southeast of Florence.
Galileo continued to receive visitors until 1642, when, after suffering fever and heart palpitations, he died on 8 January 1642, aged 77. The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II, wished to bury him in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and other ancestors, and to erect a marble mausoleum in his honour.
These plans were dropped, however, after Pope Urban VIII and his nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, protested, because Galileo had been condemned by the Catholic Church for “vehement suspicion of heresy”. He was instead buried in a small room next to the novices’ chapel at the end of a corridor from the southern transept of the basilica to the sacristy. He was reburied in the main body of the basilica in 1737 after a monument had been erected there in his honour; during this move, three fingers and a tooth were removed from his remains. One of these fingers, the middle finger from Galileo’s right hand, is currently on exhibition at the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy.
Based only on uncertain descriptions of the first practical telescope which Hans Lippershey tried to patent in the Netherlands in 1608, Galileo, in the following year, made a telescope with about 3x magnification. He later made improved versions with up to about 30x magnification. With a Galilean telescope, the observer could see magnified, upright images on the Earth—it was what is commonly known as a terrestrial telescope or a spyglass. He could also use it to observe the sky; for a time he was one of those who could construct telescopes good enough for that purpose. On 25 August 1609, he demonstrated one of his early telescopes, with a magnification of about 8 or 9, to Venetian lawmakers. His telescopes were also a profitable sideline for Galileo, who sold them to merchants who found them useful both at sea and as items of trade. He published his initial telescopic astronomical observations in March 1610 in a brief treatise entitled Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger).
Tycho and others had observed the supernova of 1572. Ottavio Brenzoni’s letter of 15 January 1605 to Galileo brought the 1572 supernova and the less bright nova of 1601 to Galileo’s notice. Galileo observed and discussed Kepler’s supernova in 1604. Since these new stars displayed no detectable diurnal parallax, Galileo concluded that they were distant stars, and, therefore, disproved the Aristotelian belief in the immutability of the heavens.
On 7 January 1610, Galileo observed with his telescope what he described at the time as “three fixed stars, totally invisible[g ] by their smallness”, all close to Jupiter, and lying on a straight line through it. Observations on subsequent nights showed that the positions of these “stars” relative to Jupiter were changing in a way that would have been inexplicable if they had really been fixed stars. On 10 January, Galileo noted that one of them had disappeared, an observation which he attributed to its being hidden behind Jupiter. Within a few days, he concluded that they were orbiting Jupiter: he had discovered three of Jupiter’s four largest moons. He discovered the fourth on 13 January. Galileo named the group of four the Medicean stars, in honour of his future patron, Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Cosimo’s three brothers. Later astronomers, however, renamed them Galilean satellites in honour of their discoverer. These satellites were independently discovered by Simon Marius on 8 January 1610 and are now called Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, the names given by Marius in his Mundus Iovialis published in 1614.
Galileo’s observations of the satellites of Jupiter caused a revolution in astronomy: a planet with smaller planets orbiting it did not conform to the principles of Aristotelian cosmology, which held that all heavenly bodies should circle the Earth, and many astronomers and philosophers initially refused to believe that Galileo could have discovered such a thing. His observations were confirmed by the observatory of Christopher Clavius and he received a hero’s welcome when he visited Rome in 1611. Galileo continued to observe the satellites over the next eighteen months, and by mid-1611, he had obtained remarkably accurate estimates for their periods—a feat which Kepler had believed impossible.
Venus, Saturn, and Neptune
From September 1610, Galileo observed that Venus exhibited a full set of phases similar to that of the Moon. The heliocentric model of the Solar System developed by Nicolaus Copernicus predicted that all phases would be visible since the orbit of Venus around the Sun would cause its illuminated hemisphere to face the Earth when it was on the opposite side of the Sun and to face away from the Earth when it was on the Earth-side of the Sun. In Ptolemy’s geocentric model it was impossible for any of the planets’ orbits to intersect the spherical shell carrying the Sun. Traditionally, the orbit of Venus was placed entirely on the near side of the Sun, where it could exhibit only crescent and new phases. It was also possible to place it entirely on the far side of the Sun, where it could exhibit only gibbous and full phases. After Galileo’s telescopic observations of the crescent, gibbous and full phases of Venus, the Ptolemaic model became untenable. In the early 17th century, as a result of his discovery, the great majority of astronomers converted to one of the various geo-heliocentric planetary models, such as the Tychonic, Capellan and Extended Capellan models, each either with or without a daily rotating Earth. These all explained the phases of Venus without the ‘refutation’ of full heliocentrism’s prediction of stellar parallax. Galileo’s discovery of the phases of Venus was thus his most empirically practically influential contribution to the two-stage transition from full geocentrism to full heliocentrism via geo-heliocentrism.
Galileo observed the planet Saturn, and at first mistook its rings for planets, thinking it was a three-bodied system. When he observed the planet later, Saturn’s rings were directly oriented at Earth, causing him to think that two of the bodies had disappeared. The rings reappeared when he observed the planet in 1616, further confusing him.
Galileo also observed the planet Neptune in 1612. It appears in his notebooks as one of many unremarkable dim stars. He did not realise that it was a planet, but he did note its motion relative to the stars before losing track of it.
On November 30, 1609 Galileo aimed his telescope at the Moon. While not being the first person to observe the Moon through a telescope (English mathematician Thomas Harriot had done it four months before but only saw a “strange spottednesse”), Galileo was the first to deduce the cause of the uneven waning as light occlusion from lunar mountains and craters. In his study, he also made topographical charts, estimating the heights of the mountains. The Moon was not what was long thought to have been a translucent and perfect sphere, as Aristotle claimed, and hardly the first “planet”, an “eternal pearl to magnificently ascend into the heavenly empyrian”, as put forth by Dante. Galileo is sometimes credited with the discovery of the lunar libration in latitude in 1632, although Thomas Harriot or William Gilbert might have done it before.