The Italian scientist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is renowned for his epoch-making contributions to astronomy, physics, and scientific philosophy.

Galileo was born in Pisa on Feb. 15, 1564, the first child of Vincenzio Galilei, a merchant and musician and an abrasive champion of advanced musical theories of the day. The family moved to Florence in 1574, and that year Galileo started his formal education in the nearby monastery of Vallombrosa. Seven years later he matriculated as a student of medicine at the University of Pisa.

In 1583, while Galileo was at home on vacation, he began to study mathematics and the physical sciences. His zeal astonished Ostilio Ricci, a family friend and professor at the Academy of Design. Ricci was a student of Nicolò Tartaglia, the famed algebraist and translator into Latin of several of Archimedes' works. Galileo's life-long admiration for Archimedes started, therefore, as his scientific studies got under way.

Galileo's new interest brought to an end his medical studies, but in Pisa at that time there was only one notable science teacher, Francisco Buonamico, and he was an Aristotelian. Galileo seems, however, to have been an eager disciple of his, as shown by Galileo's Juvenilia, dating from 1584, mostly paraphrases of Aristotelian physics and cosmology. Because of financial difficulties Galileo had to leave the University of Pisa in 1585 before he got his degree.


Early Work

Back in Florence, Galileo spent 3 years vainly searching for a suitable teaching position. He was more successful in furthering his grasp of mathematics and physics. He produced two treatises which, although circulated in manuscript form only, made his name well known. One was La bilancetta (The Little Balance), describing the hydrostatic principles of balancing; the other was a study on the center of gravity of various solids. These topics, obviously demanding a geometrical approach, were not the only evidence of his devotion to geometry and Archimedes. In a lecture given in 1588 before the Florentine Academy on the topography of Dante's Inferno, Galileo seized on details that readily lent themselves to a display of his prowess in geometry. He showed himself a perfect master both of the poet's text and of the incisiveness and sweep of geometrical lore.

Galileo's rising reputation as a mathematician and natural philosopher (physicist) gained him a teaching post at the University of Pisa in 1589. The 3 years he spent there are memorable for two things. First, he became exposed through reading a work of Giovanni Battista Benedetti to the "Parisian tradition" of physics, which originated during the 14th century with the speculations of Jean Buridan and Nicole Oresme at the University of Paris. This meant the breakaway point in Galileo's thought from Aristotelian physics and the start of his preoccupation with a truly satisfactory formulation of the impetus theory. Second, right at the beginning of his academic career, he showed himself an eager participant in disputes and controversies. With biting sarcasm he lampooned the custom of wearing academic gowns. The most he was willing to condone was the use of ordinary clothes, but only after pointing out that the best thing was to go naked.

The death of Galileo's father in 1591 put on his shoulders the care of his mother, brothers, and sisters. He had to look for a better position, which he found in 1592 at the University of Padua, part of the Venetian Republic. The 18 years he spent there were, according to his own admission, the happiest of his life. He often visited Venice and made many influential friends, among them Giovanfrancesco Sagredo, whom he later immortalized in the Dialogue as the representative of judiciousness and good sense.

In 1604 Galileo publicly declared that he was a Copernican. In three public lectures given in Venice, before an overflow audience, he argued that the new star which appeared earlier that year was major evidence in support of the doctrine of Copernicus. (Actually the new star merely proved that there was something seriously wrong with the Aristotelian doctrine of the heavens.) More important was a letter Galileo wrote that year to Father Paolo Sarpi, in which he stated that "the distances covered in natural motion are proportional to the squares of the number of time intervals, and therefore, the distances covered in equal times are as the odd numbers beginning from one." By natural motion, Galileo meant the unimpeded fall of a body, and what he proposed was the law of free fall, later written as s = 1/2 (gt2), where s is distance, t is time, and g is the acceleration due to gravity at sea level.

In 1606 came the publication of The Operations of the Geometrical and Military Compass, which reveals the experimentalist and craftsman in Galileo. In this booklet he went overboard in defending his originality against charges from rather insignificant sources. It was craftsmanship, not theorizing, which put the crowning touch on his stay in Padua. In mid-1609 he learned about the success of some Dutch spectacle makers in combining lenses into what later came to be called a telescope. He feverishly set to work, and on August 25 he presented to the Venetian Senate a telescope as his own invention. The success was tremendous. He obtained a lifelong contract at the University of Padua, but he also stirred up just resentment when it was learned that he was not the original inventor.


Astronomical Works

Galileo's success in making a workable and sufficiently powerful telescope with a magnifying power of about 40 was due to intuition rather than to rigorous reasoning in optics. It was also the intuitive stroke of a genius that made him turn the telescope toward the sky sometime in the fall of 1609, a feat which a dozen other people could very well have done during the previous 4 to 5 years. Science had few luckier moments. Within a few months he gathered astonishing evidence about mountains on the moon, about moons circling Jupiter, and about an incredibly large number of stars, especially in the belt of the Milky Way. On March 12, 1610, all these sensational items were printed in Venice under the title Sidereus nuncius (The Starry Messenger), a booklet which took the world of science by storm. The view of the heavens drastically changed, and so did Galileo's life.

Historians agree that Galileo's decision to secure for himself the position of court mathematician in Florence at the court of Cosimo II (the job also included the casting of horoscopes for his princely patron) reveals a heavy strain of selfishness in his character. He wanted nothing, not even a modest amount of teaching, to impede him in pursuing his ambition to become the founder of new physics and new astronomy. In 1610 he left behind in Padua his common-law wife, Marina Gamba, and his young son, Vincenzio, and placed his two daughters, aged 12 and 13, in the convent of S. Matteo in Arcetri. The older, Sister Maria Celeste as nun, was later a great comfort to her father.

Galileo's move to Florence turned out to be highly unwise, as events soon showed. In the beginning, however, everything was pure bliss. He made a triumphal visit to Rome in 1611. The next year saw the publication of his Discourse on Bodies in Water. There he disclosed his discovery of the phases of Venus (a most important proof of the truth of the Copernican theory), but the work was also the source of heated controversies. In 1613 Galileo published his observations of sunspots, which embroiled him for many years in bitter disputes with the German Jesuit Christopher Scheiner of the University of Ingolstadt, whose observations of sunspots had already been published in January 1612 under the pseudonym Apelles.


First Condemnation

But Galileo's real aim was to make a sweeping account of the Copernican universe and of the new physics it necessitated. A major obstacle was the generally shared, though officially never sanctioned, belief that the biblical revelation imposed geocentrism in general and the motionlessness of the earth in particular. To counter the scriptural difficulties, he waded deep into theology. With the help of some enlightened ecclesiastics, such as Monsignor Piero Dini and Father Benedetto Castelli, a Benedictine from Monte Cassino and his best scientific pupil, Galileo produced essays in the form of letters, which now rank among the best writings of biblical theology of those times. As the letters (the longest one was addressed to Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany) circulated widely, a confrontation with the Church authorities became inevitable. The disciplinary instruction handed down in 1616 by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine forbade Galileo to "hold, teach and defend in any manner whatsoever, in words or in print" the Copernican doctrine of the motion of the earth.

Galileo knew, of course, both the force and the limits of what in substance was a disciplinary measure. It could be reversed, and he eagerly looked for any evidence indicating precisely that. He obeyed partly out of prudence, partly because he remained to the end a devout and loyal Catholic. Although his yearning for fame was powerful, there can be no doubt about the sincerity of his often-voiced claim that by his advocacy of Copernicanism he wanted to serve the long-range interest of the Church in a world of science. The first favorable sign came in 1620, when Cardinal Maffeo Barberini composed a poem in honor of Galileo. Three years later the cardinal became Pope Urban VIII. How encouraged Galileo must have felt can be seen from the fact that he dedicated to the new pope his freshly composed Assayer, one of the finest pieces of polemics ever produced in the philosophy of science.

The next year Galileo had six audiences with Urban VIII, who promised a pension for Galileo's son, Vincenzio, but gave Galileo no firm assurance about changing the injunction of 1616. But before departing for Florence, Galileo was informed that the Pope had remarked that "the Holy Church had never, and would never, condemn it [Copernicanism] as heretical but only as rash, though there was no danger that anyone would ever demonstrate it to be necessarily true." This was more than enough to give Galileo the necessary encouragement to go ahead with the great undertaking of his life.


The Dialogue

Galileo spent 6 years writing his Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems. When the final manuscript copy was being made in March 1630, Father Castelli dispatched the news to Galileo that Urban VIII insisted in a private conversation with him that, had he been the pope in 1616, the censuring of Copernicanism would have never taken place. Galileo also learned about the benevolent attitude of the Pope's official theologian, Father Nicolò Riccardi, Master of the Sacred Palace. The book was published with ecclesiastical approbation on Feb. 21, 1632.

Its contents are easy to summarize, as its four main topics are discussed in dialogue form on four consecutive days. Of the three interlocutors, Simplicius represented Aristotle, Salviati was Galileo's spokesman, and Sagredo played the role of the judicious arbiter leaning heavily toward Galileo. The First Day is devoted to the criticism of the alleged perfection of the universe and especially of its superlunary region, as claimed by Aristotle. Here Galileo made ample use of his discovery of the "imperfections" of the moon, namely, of its rugged surface revealed by the telescope. The Second Day is a discussion of the advantages of the rotation of the earth on its axis for the explanation of various celestial phenomena. During the Third Day the orbital motion of the earth around the sun is debated, the principal issues being the parallax of stars and the undisturbed state of affairs on the surface of the earth in spite of its double motion. In this connection Galileo gave the most detailed account of his ideas of the relativity of motion and of the inertial motion. Bafflingly enough, he came to contradict his best-posited principles when he offered during the Fourth Day the tides as proof of the earth's twofold motion. The inconsistencies and arbitrariness that characterize his discourse there could not help undermine an otherwise magnificent effort presented in a most attractive style.


Second Condemnation

The Dialogue certainly proved that for all his rhetorical provisos Galileo held, taught, and defended the doctrine of Copernicus. It did not help Galileo either that he put into the mouth of the discredited Simplicius an argument which was a favorite with Urban VIII. Galileo was summoned to Rome to appear before the Inquisition. Legally speaking, his prosecutors were justified. Galileo did not speak the truth when he claimed before his judges that he did not hold Copernicanism since the precept was given to him in 1616 to abandon it. The justices had their point, but it was the letter of the law, not its spirit, that they vindicated. More importantly, they miscarried justice, aborted philosophical truth, and gravely compromised sound theology. In that misguided defense of orthodoxy the only sad solace for Galileo's supporters consisted in the fact that the highest authority of the Church did not become implicated, as the Catholic René Descartes, the Protestant Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, and others were quick to point out during the coming decades.

The proceedings dragged on from the fall of 1632 to the summer of 1633. During that time Galileo was allowed to stay at the home of the Florentine ambassador in Rome and was detained by the Holy Office only from June 21, the day preceding his abjuration, until the end of the month. He was never subjected to physical coercion. However, he had to inflict the supreme torture upon himself by abjuring the doctrine that the earth moved. One hundred years later a writer with vivid imagination dramatized the event by claiming that following his abjuration Galileo muttered the words "Eppur si muove (And yet it does move)."

On his way back to Florence, Galileo enjoyed the hospitality of the archbishop of Siena for some 5 months and then received permission in December to live in his own villa at Arcetri. He was not supposed to have any visitors, but this injunction was not obeyed. Nor was ecclesiastical prohibition a serious obstacle to the printing of his works outside Italy. In 1634 Father Marin Mersenne published in French translation a manuscript of Galileo on mechanics composed during his Paduan period. In Holland the Elzeviers brought out his Dialogue in Latin in 1635 and shortly afterward his great theological letter to Grand Duchess Christina. But the most important event in this connection took place in 1638, when Galileo's Two New Sciences saw print in Leiden.

Two New Sciences

The first draft of the work went back to Galileo's professorship at Padua. But cosmology replaced pure physics as the center of his attention until 1633. His condemnation was in a sense a gain for physics. He had no sooner regained his composure in Siena than he was at work preparing for publication old, long-neglected manuscripts. The Two New Sciences, like the Dialogue, is in the dialogue form and the discussions are divided into Four Days. The First Day is largely taken up with the mechanical resistance of materials, with ample allowance for speculations on the atomic constitution of matter. There are also long discussions on the question of vacuum and on the isochronism of the vibrations of pendulums. During the Second Day all these and other topics, among them the properties of levers, are discussed in a strictly mathematical manner, in an almost positivist spirit, with no attention being given to "underlying causes." Equally "dry" and mathematical is the analysis of uniform and accelerated motion during the Third Day, and the same holds true of the topic of the Fourth Day, the analysis of projectile motion. There Galileo proved that the longest shot occurred when the cannon was set at an angle of 45 degrees. He arrived at this result by recognizing that the motions of the cannonball in the vertical and in the horizontal directions "can combine without changing, disturbing or impeding each other" into a parabolic path.

Galileo found the justification for such a geometrical analysis of motion partly because it led to a striking correspondence with factual data. More importantly, he believed that the universe was structured along the patterns of geometry. In 1604 he could have had experimental verification of the law of free fall, which he derived on a purely theoretical basis, but it is not known that he sought at that time such an experimental proof. He was a Christian Platonist as far as scientific method was concerned. This is why he praised Copernicus repeatedly in the Dialogue for his belief in the voice of reason, although it contradicted sense experience. Such a faith rested on the conviction that the world was a product of a personal, rational Creator who disposed everything according to weight, measure, and number.

This biblically inspired faith was stated by Galileo most eloquently in the closing pages of the First Day of the Dialogue. There he described the human mind as the most excellent product of the Creator, precisely because it could recognize mathematical truths. This faith is possibly the most precious bequest of the great Florentine, who spent his last years partially blind. His disciple Vincenzio Viviani sensed this well as he described the last hours of Galileo: "On the night of Jan. 8, 1642, with philosophical and Christian firmness he rendered up his soul to its Creator, sending it, as he liked to believe, to enjoy and to watch from a closer vantage point those eternal and immutable marvels which he, by means of a fragile device, had brought closer to our mortal eyes with such eagerness and impatience."

Further Reading on Galileo Galilei

Galileo's chief works are available in excellent translations: Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems (translated by Stillman Drake, 1953); Dialogues concerning Two New Sciences (translated by H. Crew and A. de Salvio, 1914; repr. 1952); and The Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (edited and translated by Stillman Drake, 1957), which contains The Starry Messenger, the Letters on Sunspots, the Letter to Grand Duchess Christina, and the Assayer.

Stillman Drake also wrote Galileo Studies: Personality, Tradition, and Revolution (1970), which discusses Galileo and 16th-century science. An excellently written, relatively short biography is James Brodrick, Galileo: The Man, His Work, His Misfortunes (1965). Giorgio de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (1955), and Jerome J. Langford, Galileo: Science and the Church (1966), treat Galileo's condemnation and trial. His philosophy of science is the principal consideration in Ludovico Geymonat, Galileo Galilei (1965). A Galileo bibliography of some 2,000 entries, covering the period 1940-1965, is in Galileo: Man of Science (1968), edited by Ernan McMullin, a volume of essays commemorating the four-hundredth anniversary of Galileo's birth.