Galileo Galilei’s Birthday

Galileo Galilei’s Birthday[1]

Happy belated 452nd birthday to one of the first modern scientists, Galileo. With the aid of an early telescope, he helped remove Earth from the center of the universe. He was born on February 15, 1564.

He is one of the first people on Earth to have aimed a telescope at the heavens, where he found – among many other things – phases for the planet Venus, and four starry points of light orbiting the planet Jupiter. In Galileo’s time, educated people subscribed to the Aristotelian view that Earth lay fixed in the center of a more or less unchanging universe. Thus the discovery of moons orbiting Jupiter (now called the Galilean satellites) and revelation that Venus must orbit the sun, not the Earth, were considered heresy by the Roman Inquisition. In 1633, the Inquisition forced Galileo to recant. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Afterwards, famously, he’s said to have said:

E pur si muove (and yet it moves).

The phrase is still used today as a retort, implying it doesn’t matter what you believe; these are the facts.

Galileo grew up in a musical family. In 1574, the family moved to Florence where 18 year-old Galileo began his education in a monastery. He was very successful in his studies, and began studying medicine at the University of Pisa. Due to financial problems, he was unable to finish his degree, but his years at the university were priceless. They introduced him to mathematics, and physics, but most importantly, they introduced him to Aristotle’s philosophy.

Back then, if somebody wished to know about the universe, the way to do it was to read Aristotle’s works. As Dante had put it some centuries before, Aristotle is “the Master of those who know” (Dante, Inferno 4.131). In other words, at that time, knowledge was to philosophy what faith was to religion.

In the Museum of Science in Florence, I viewed the remnant of Galileo: his preserved finger. I’m not going to say which one it is, but you might have an idea, given his problems with the Church.

[1] This date in science: Galileo’s Birthday, EarthSky (February 15, 2017).


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