Galileo Galilei Biography (1564-1642)

Italian Astronomer, Mathematician and Natural Philosopher

Born to a poor musician, Galileo developed skills in mechanics, mathematics and philosophy which challenged the teachings of Aristotle and the beliefs of the church.

Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa and lived in Florence during his formative years. His father was a poor but titled musician and taught him to play the lute and guitar from an early age. However, the young budding scientist showed a preference for poetry, drawing and a curiosity about how things worked.

Early Education

Galileo was formally educated at the University of Pisa, enrolling initially for medicine at the request of his father, but he preferred philosophy. His fellow students knew him as ‘the wrangler’ because he challenged the teachings of Aristotle. Later, persecuted by his colleagues who revered the ancient Greek teacher he succumbed to resign from his post as professor of mathematics.

During his education at Pisa he began to run tests using falling objects and discovered his liking and ability for mathematics. From watching the swinging motion of a lamp, he invented the ‘pulsilogium,’ an instrument that measured the rate and variation of the pulse. This mechanism used a pendulum, but pendulum clocks were not introduced for another 50 years.

Theories and Teachings

Galileo had to drop out of University for financial reasons and he returned to Florence for a short time. He then went on to teach for many years in Pisa and Padua developing his theories and practices. He was particularly interested in mechanics and astronomy but his discoveries were not welcome, particularly by the church but also by his colleagues and followers of Aristotle. He fought for many years to publicise his work in the public domain but he experienced severe ecclesiastical censure. Following an audience at an Inquisition, he was even imprisoned but he continued to write and discover despite these enforced restrictions.

Galileo and Mechanics

Galileo spent a lot of effort to understand the rules of gravity. During this work, he challenged the Aristotelian belief that bodies would fall at the rate according to their weight. He also explained ‘proportional relationships’ regarding the distance objects would fall in a given time.

Galileo explored inertia and his principles are used in Newton’s system as the first law of motion. He also designed a thermoscope (a predated thermometer), completed work on genomics, which uses shadows to tell the time and explored the laws of motion and military strategy.

Galileo and Astronomy

Galileo believed, like Copernicus a fellow Greek philosopher that the earth revolved around the sun. This theory was difficult to prove without the use of mathematics and Galileo was reluctant to entice the ridicule of his colleagues and the public. Using a simple magnifying glass as his basis, he created the first complete astronomical telescope in a very short amount of time.With this he made a number of discoveries including:

  • The moon had a cratered not smooth surface
  • Four moons surrounded Jupiter (12 more would later be discovered)
  • ‘Sunspots’ which darkened the solar surface
  • The Milky Way consisted of a number of clustered but singular stars
  • A ring encircled Saturn
  • Venus went through many similar phases to moon cycles

Galileo eventually became blind, but his theories enabled insight into a new world albeit one feared by some in powerful positions of society – the Roman Catholic Church did not formally recognise the validity of his scientific contributions until 1993. His theories and proofs are documented in some sixteen volumes, which have continued to inspire and launch new discoveries to this day.

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