Galileo’s 450th Birthday

This week, on the 15th of February, we celebrate 450th birthday of the great physicist, philosopher, and mathematician Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642). Most famous for defending heliocentrism against the Church, Galileo also considerably improved the refracting telescope and established some of the fundamental laws of classical mechanics. Galileo was the epitome of the Renaissance man. To celebrate Galileo, whose tomb lies on the north side of Santa Croce’s nave, we present some of his greatest contributions to science and technology.

Galileo Galilei

Before Galileo, scientists typically argued using the Aristotelian method of combining causes and logic (namely syllogisms) to produce seemingly undeniable conclusions. Galileo, however, saw how this method could be insufficient; although from pure rhetoric it was an advance that led Aristotle to predict the earth was round, it was outdated and not a powerful enough tool to derive his mathematical models of falling bodies. Instead, he conducted experiments to confirm his intuition, a novel concept that integrated the Aristotelian deduction with experimental induction, which eventually became the standard for confirming or rejecting scientific theories.

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Galileo’s Experiments from the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Some of Galileo’s more profitable ventures lay in more applied science, what we would now call “technology”. Included among these were a military compass that improved efficiency with cannons and guns, and a refracting telescope, which he could use to magnify insects and inspect the solar system with state-of-the-art precision. With the new telescope, Galileo modeled the orbits of Jupiter’s moons, and he proposed that these bodies could be used as a universal clock. Although he never successfully implemented this idea, it came to fruition several decades after his death by an Italian astronomer.

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Galileo’s Notebook Recording Phases of the Moons of Jupiter

Galileo was not simply a scientist who churned out theories and inventions; he was committed and persuasive, while not being stubborn in the face of contradictory evidence. Seeing his writing skill and intellect, Pope Urban VIII asked him to published a book defending geocentrism. Galileo courageously published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, in which the character defending geocentrism is made to seem foolish. After the book was banned by the Church, Galileo was threatened torture if he did not publicly reverse his views. He held tight to his theories, however, and spent the remainder of his life under house arrest.

When Galileo died in 1642, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II, asked that he be buried in the nave of the Basilica of Santa Croce. The Pope, however, protested the request due to Galileo’s heliocentric heresy, and Galileo was buried in the Medici Chapel of the Novices in Santa Croce. About a century later, in 1737, Ferdinando’s wish was finally granted, and Galileo’s body was reburied in the basilica, complete with the monument pictured here.

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Daniel Allen is a sophomore at Stanford University in California. He is currently studying art and Italian at the Stanford program in Florence and interning at Santa Croce.

Photo copyright unknown. We will gladly give credit upon request.


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