[This Commentary originally appeared in the October 19, 1989 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
Born on February 15th in what was then a small seaport, his father belonged to a noble, but impoverished, family. Dad dabbled in the clothing business, but had an aptitude for mathematics and music. He also had common sense, for he realized that, in those days, none but the chosen few could afford a living in the mathematics or music industry.
The father sent the son to study medicine – always a fine and rewarding industry – at the local University. The proud parent knew the temptation music and mathematics might have on the boy, so he purposely dissuaded him from those fields. The young man, however, already possessed a proficiency in music.
At the University, he incurred the wrath of his professors. He simply refused to accept on faith dogmatic statements based solely on the authority of what he considered to be ancient philosophers. His classmates christened him “The Wrangler” for all the trouble he caused.
At the age of 21, much to his father’s chagrin, he left medicine and turned to science and mathematics. Unfortunately, lack of money forced him to withdraw from the University and return home.
Still, his hobby eventually brought him into the highest circles. His lectures would fill the largest auditoriums. Yet he remained an independent mind, taking on all authority whenever his convictions demanded him to. When his died on a cold winter day in January, he had left an irreplaceable mark in all of science and on western civilization.
Galileo Galilei, born in Pisa in 1564, lived a life continually intertwined with the Church. Indeed, his first discovery – the isochronism of a pendulum – had its roots when, as a youngster, the gentle swinging of the church chandelier fascinated him. He correctly determined the time it takes a pendulum to swing back and forth is the same regardless of how high up the pendulum moves. He suggested applying this fundamental finding to clocks.
Of further irony, Galileo’s first papers, delivered to the Florentine Academy at the age of 23, dealt with the site and dimensions of Dante’s Inferno. (As we all know, that particular portion of Dante’s famous trilogy concerned itself with H-E-double toothpicks.) By his twenty-fourth birthday, “The Wrangler” became known as “The Archimedes of His Time” (primarily for his work on the center of gravity of solids).
The University of Pisa awarded him the post of Mathematical Lecturer, and Galileo began his professional career in the area he loved. It was during this time that he conducted his legendary gravitational experiments. While it is, in fact, doubtful that he ever tossed a feather and a hammer from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, he was the first to show a projectile has a parabolic path.
While at the University of Pisa, he conducted motion experiments which led directly to the discovery of the Law of Inertia (Newton’s First Law). This disproved that rest is the natural state of matter; thus, his life-long battle with Aristotelians began. To make matters worse, The Wrangler also derided the authorities by ridiculing University regulations. Arousing the enmity of his colleagues, Galileo resigned and took up a position at the University of Padua. He eventually received an appointment as professor at the University of Florence and as Philosopher and Mathematician Extraordinaire to the Grand Duke of Tuscany.
Galileo did not invent the telescope. Dutch lens maker Hans Lippershey created the first “spyglass” in 1608. (After being embarrassed in fourth grade when I got this question incorrect on a test, I will never forget this fact.) A year later, Galileo learned of the telescope and improved upon its design. He was probably the first person to use the telescope for astronomical purposes.
With the telescope, Galileo is credited with discovering mountainous configurations on the moon, the phases of Venus, the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. In the case of the latter, his telescope did not have the power for him to precisely determine just what the rings were. He sort of thought they resembled ears.
With all of these discoveries, as well as the mathematical laws of planetary motion invented by his contemporary Johannes Kepler, Galileo could not help but agree with Copernicus. Copernicus proposed the Earth moved around the Sun, in deference to the widely held (and official) view that the Sun orbited the Earth.
Needless to say, The Wrangler got himself in hot water with the Church. Don’t forget, the Inquisition was going on at that time. Admonished by the Pope, Galileo was warned not to hold or defend the Copernican theory. He remained silent for nearly fifteen years before publishing Il Saggiatore. This pamphlet contended recent astronomical discoveries were more in accord with the Copernican View. Ever the diplomat, he dedicated the book to Pope Urban VIII, his friend. The inoffensive book was well received by both the scientific and ecclesiastical communities.
Five years later came the publication of the famous Dialogo dei Due Massimi Sistemi (Dialogue on the Two Principal Systems of the World). Galileo wrote the brilliantly crafted Dialogo in Italian, not Latin, so it could reach the mass audience. Though a thinly veiled disclaimer appears at the front of the book, the witty and penetrating discussion destroyed the ancient belief that the Earth stood still.
Summoned before the Inquisition, Pope Urban VIII, possibly feeling betrayed and possibly under political pressure, charged Galileo first with breaking his earlier agreement to keep silent, second with teaching the Copernican Theory as fact and third, with actually believing the Copernican Theory. A forged document led to Galileo’s conviction, and he lived the rest of his life under virtual house arrest.
Still, Galileo’s studies continued and he wrote yet another, more scientific monument concerning his theory of mechanics. So powerful were his laws of motion that, while Newton refined them, they were not fully replaced until Einstein discovered the Theory of Relativity earlier this century.
In 1979, 346 years after his conviction, Pope John Paul II reversed the condemnation of Galileo. This week, American honors The Wrangler by sending a space probe in his name to Jupiter.
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]