Galileo Galilei

Born: 15 Feb 1564 in Pisa (now in Italy)

Died: 8 Jan 1642 in Arcetri (near Florence) (now in Italy)

Galileo Galilei's parents were Vincenzo Galilei and Guilia Ammannati. Vincenzo, who was born in Florence in 1520, was a teacher of music and a fine lute player. After studying music in Venice he carried out experiments on strings to support his musical theories. Guilia, who was born in Pescia, married Vincenzo in 1563 and they made their home in the countryside near Pisa. Galileo was their first child and spent his early years with his family in Pisa.

In 1572, when Galileo was eight years old, his family returned to Florence, his father's home town. However, Galileo remained in Pisa and lived for two years with Muzio Tedaldi who was related to Galileo's mother by marriage. When he reached the age of ten, Galileo left Pisa to join his family in Florence and there he was tutored by Jacopo Borghini. Once he was old enough to be educated in a monastery, his parents sent him to the Camaldolese Monastery at Vallombrosa which is situated on a magnificent forested hillside 33 km southeast of Florence. The Camaldolese Order was independent of the Benedictine Order, splitting from it in about 1012. The Order combined the solitary life of the hermit with the strict life of the monk and soon the young Galileo found this life an attractive one. He became a novice, intending to join the Order, but this did not please his father who had already decided that his eldest son should become a medical doctor.

Vincenzo had Galileo return from Vallombrosa to Florence and give up the idea of joining the Camaldolese order. He did continue his schooling in Florence, however, in a school run by the Camaldolese monks. In 1581 Vincenzo sent Galileo back to Pisa to live again with Muzio Tedaldi and now to enrol for a medical degree at the University of Pisa. Although the idea of a medical career never seems to have appealed to Galileo, his father's wish was a fairly natural one since there had been a distinguished physician in his family in the previous century. Galileo never seems to have taken medical studies seriously, attending courses on his real interests which were in mathematics and natural philosophy. His mathematics teacher at Pisa was Filippo Fantoni, who held the chair of mathematics. Galileo returned to Florence for the summer vacations and there continued to study mathematics.

In the year 1582-83 Ostilio Ricci, who was the mathematician of the Tuscan Court and a former pupil of Tartaglia, taught a course on Euclid's Elements at the University of Pisa which Galileo attended. During the summer of 1583 Galileo was back in Florence with his family and Vincenzo encouraged him to read Galen to further his medical studies. However Galileo, still reluctant to study medicine, invited Ricci (also in Florence where the Tuscan court spent the summer and autumn) to his home to meet his father. Ricci tried to persuade Vincenzo to allow his son to study mathematics since this was where his interests lay. Certainly Vincenzo did not like the idea and resisted strongly but eventually he gave way a little and Galileo was able to study the works of Euclid and Archimedes from the Italian translations which Tartaglia had made. Of course he was still officially enrolled as a medical student at Pisa but eventually, by 1585, he gave up this course and left without completing his degree.

Galileo began teaching mathematics, first privately in Florence and then during 1585-86 at Sienna where he held a public appointment. During the summer of 1586 he taught at Vallombrosa, and in this year he wrote his first scientific book The little balance [La Balancitta] which described Archimedes' method of finding the specific gravities (that is the relative densities) of substances using a balance. In the following year he travelled to Rome to visit Clavius who was professor of mathematics at the Jesuit Collegio Romano there. A topic which was very popular with the Jesuit mathematicians at this time was centres of gravity and Galileo brought with him some results which he had discovered on this topic. Despite making a very favourable impression on Clavius, Galileo failed to gain an appointment to teach mathematics at the University of Bologna.

After leaving Rome Galileo remained in contact with Clavius by correspondence and Guidobaldo del Monte was also a regular correspondent. Certainly the theorems which Galileo had proved on the centres of gravity of solids, and left in Rome, were discussed in this correspondence. It is also likely that Galileo received lecture notes from courses which had been given at the Collegio Romano, for he made copies of such material which still survive today. The correspondence began around 1588 and continued for many years. Also in 1588 Galileo received a prestigious invitation to lecture on the dimensions and location of hell in Dante's Inferno at the Academy in Florence.

Fantoni left the chair of mathematics at the University of Pisa in 1589 and Galileo was appointed to fill the post (although this was only a nominal position to provide financial support for Galileo). Not only did he receive strong recommendations from Clavius, but he also had acquired an excellent reputation through his lectures at the Florence Academy in the previous year. The young mathematician had rapidly acquired the reputation that was necessary to gain such a position, but there were still higher positions at which he might aim. Galileo spent three years holding this post at the university of Pisa and during this time he wrote De Motu a series of essays on the theory of motion which he never published. It is likely that he never published this material because he was less than satisfied with it, and this is fair for despite containing some important steps forward, it also contained some incorrect ideas. Perhaps the most important new ideas which De Motu contains is that one can test theories by conducting experiments. In particular the work contains his important idea that one could test theories about falling bodies using an inclined plane to slow down the rate of descent.

In 1591 Vincenzo Galilei, Galileo's father, died and since Galileo was the eldest son he had to provide financial support for the rest of the family and in particular have the necessary financial means to provide dowries for his two younger sisters. Being professor of mathematics at Pisa was not well paid, so Galileo looked for a more lucrative post. With strong recommendations from Guidobaldo del Monte, Galileo was appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Padua (the university of the Republic of Venice) in 1592 at a salary of three times what he had received at Pisa. On 7 December 1592 he gave his inaugural lecture and began a period of eighteen years at the university, years which he later described as the happiest of his life. At Padua his duties were mainly to teach Euclid's geometry and standard (geocentric) astronomy to medical students, who would need to know some astronomy in order to make use of astrology in their medical practice. However, Galileo argued against Aristotle's view of astronomy and natural philosophy in three public lectures he gave in connection with the appearance of a New Star (now known as ' Kepler's supernova') in 1604. The belief at this time was that of Aristotle, namely that all changes in the heavens had to occur in the lunar region close to the Earth, the realm of the fixed stars being permanent. Galileo used parallax arguments to prove that the New Star could not be close to the Earth. In a personal letter written to Kepler in 1598, Galileo had stated that he was a Copernican (believer in the theories of Copernicus). However, no public sign of this belief was to appear until many years later.

At Padua, Galileo began a long term relationship with Maria Gamba, who was from Venice, but they did not marry perhaps because Galileo felt his financial situation was not good enough. In 1600 their first child Virginia was born, followed by a second daughter Livia in the following year. In 1606 their son Vincenzo was born.

We mentioned above an error in Galileo's theory of motion as he set it out in De Motu around 1590. He was quite mistaken in his belief that the force acting on a body was the relative difference between its specific gravity and that of the substance through which it moved. Galileo wrote to his friend Paolo Sarpi, a fine mathematician who was consultor to the Venetian government, in 1604 and it is clear from his letter that by this time he had realised his mistake. In fact he had returned to work on the theory of motion in 1602 and over the following two years, through his study of inclined planes and the pendulum, he had formulated the correct law of falling bodies and had worked out that a projectile follows a parabolic path. However, these famous results would not be published for another 35 years.

In May 1609, Galileo received a letter from Paolo Sarpi telling him about a spyglass that a Dutchman had shown in Venice. Galileo wrote in the Starry Messenger (Sidereus Nuncius) in April 1610:-

About ten months ago a report reached my ears that a certain Fleming had constructed a spyglass by means of which visible objects, though very distant from the eye of the observer, were distinctly seen as if nearby. Of this truly remarkable effect several experiences were related, to which some persons believed while other denied them. A few days later the report was confirmed by a letter I received from a Frenchman in Paris, Jacques Badovere, which caused me to apply myself wholeheartedly to investigate means by which I might arrive at the invention of a similar instrument. This I did soon afterwards, my basis being the doctrine of refraction.


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