10.02.2014

The 450th anniversary of the birth of Galileo Galilei, the father of modern science

Porträt Galileo GalileiGalilei’s (1564-1642) eventful story begins in Pisa, where he is born on 15th February 1564 as the eldest son in a patrician family. His father Vincenzo is a composer and music theorist, an artist to the core and well connected with the court of the Medicis in Florence, where the family moves in 1574. Galileo learns to play the lute, attends school in a monastery and has his first experience of acoustic instruments and life on the fringe of the court. At his father’s behest he reluctantly enrols as a student of medicine at Pisa University, where he discovers his love for mathematics.

Galilei’s next years are spent immersing himself in the study of maths and addressing mechanical challenges articulated by Archimedes before him. A recommendation from his patron Guidobaldo del Monte leads to a maths professorship at Padua University. 1592 finds the two men studying the movement of projectiles, as alluded to in entries in a notebook of Guidobaldo’s, preserved to this day. They roll balls dipped in ink across a slanting surface, leaving trails marking the balls’ trajectory. Do the paths traced by the balls form a parabola? A hyperbola? An inverted catenary curve? In the “Discorsi”, his ground-breaking work on mechanics, Galilei will revisit these early experiments.

In 1609 Galilei hears of an optical enlargement device said to have been constructed by Dutch spectacle makers. Galilei starts creating his own improved lenses. With his much acclaimed telescope he discovers mountains and valleys on the surface of the moon, four moons of Jupiter and numerous other hitherto unknown celestial bodies. He is feted as the “Columbus of the Heavens” and appointed as the Medicis’ court philosopher.

Galilei, Galileo, Sydereus nuncius, magna longeque admirabilla spectacula pandens, suspiciendaque proponens unicuiqe, praefertim vero philosophis, atque astronomis , 1655

Following his surprise promotion and a number of other astronomical discoveries Galilei becomes more outspoken in support of the Copernican view of the universe. In his zeal he does not shrink from interpreting the Holy Scriptures from his newly acquired stance. In so doing, he finds himself at odds with the religious authorities. In 1633 he faces the Inquisition and is forced to abjure Copernicanism. He is sentenced to life under house arrest.

Galilei’s “Discorsi”, written when its author was well advanced in years and devoid of his earlier Copernican pathos, is a seminal work setting out the mathematical describability of the natural world. Totally blind for the last years of his life, Galilei dies on 8th January 1642 in his villa in Arcetri, near Florence.

Work by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) in Berlin is revealing the background to the Galilei myth. Historical documents illuminate the significance of 17th-century practical knowledge – ranging from glass manufacture to artillery – for the scientific revolution and shed light on the reflective processes that ushered in a new world system. The Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek is a valuable source of information on texts and other material relating to Galilei.

Further information:

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
Feature story on Galileo Galilei on the MPIWG website
Press statement to mark the 450th anniversary of Galilei’s birth

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