Friday, March 13, 2009

Galileo Galilei

Portrait Source: Wikipedia (Public Domain); Portrait of Galileo Galilei, by Justus Sustermans, 1619

Where does one begin... describe the many amazing adventures, earth-shattering discoveries and inventive creations of this one incredible Italian. A renowned scientist in an era when such people often engineered their own tools, he used his own improved version of the telescope to discover of the moons of Jupiter, Saturn’s Rings, lunar mountains and the phases of Venus. Each of these are worthy of their own separate nominations in the 100 Greatest Ideas and Imaginations in Astronomy and Space Exploration.

Yet Galileo did not silently labor in some laboratory. He used his unique personality and gifted communication style to not merely report his findings, but to promote a rather radical interpretation of them – the heliocentric theory posthumously published by Copernicus.

No stranger to politics and intrigue, he escaped harsher punishment to serve a rather tame sentence, but invoked the wrath of the Pope when he defied his agreement and published Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems) in 1632. Significantly, he chose to publish this book in the vernacular language (Italian) rather than the language of science (Latin); thus, exposing the heliocentric theory to the masses. Sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life, he continued his scientific writings (although outside the jurisdiction of the inquisition) with his opus Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche, intorno a due nuove scienze, (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences), 1638. From this masterpiece we get the early laws of motion we now call “Galilean Transformations.”

In many ways, Galileo represents the true heir of Aristotle (poetically ironic given he spent his entire life fighting the Aristotelian view of his day). Like the Greek philosopher, he doggedly challenged the nuances of rhetorical word play and instead focused on the reality he observed. But, unlike Aristotle, who exiled himself rather than have Athens “sin twice against philosophy,” Galileo had the courage to remain a player in the battle until he peacefully passed away. No greater authority echoes these accolades upon this son of an impoverished musician than Albert Einstein (in Ideas and Opinions).

“Because Galileo saw this, and particularly because he drummed it into the scientific world, he is the father of modern physics -- indeed, of modern science altogether.”

For a more comprehensive, yet light-hearted biography of Galileo, go to A Wrangler’s Tale.

Galileo Galilei has been nominated on under the People category as a candidate for one of the Top 100 Greatest Images and Imaginations in Astronomy and Space Exploration. If you’d like to make a nomination, you can do so for free on

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