When scientist and polymath, Isaac Newton famously said “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants“, one of the giants he was referring to was Galileo.
Newton (1643-1727), who emerged as one of the greatest minds of the 17th century, discovered the laws of motion and described gravity.
A century earlier Galileo proved that objects fall at the same speed regardless of their mass. Newton understood that this phenomenon also worked in space and used mathematics to prove that the whole universe is governed by the same laws of physics. Gravity effects a falling apple in the same way as it effects an orbiting planet.
A new biography about Italian scientist, astronomer and mathematician, Galileo Galilei, makes a compelling argument that is as important today as it was 400 years ago. In Galileo and the Science Deniers, Mario Livio reveals Galileo’s courage and the personal struggles he endured throughout his life because of his unwavering search for the truth supported by science.
It seems unthinkable now because we take certain scientific facts for granted, but in 1633 Galileo was tried, convicted, and sentenced to house arrest by the Catholic Church. His “crime” was to challenge the widely-held belief that the universe was a creation of God, with the Earth firmly located at its centre. Thanks to Galileo and his powerful telescope, he was able to prove that the Earth is one of the many planets that rotate around the sun.
Each beautifully written and insightful chapter delves into the discoveries for which Galileo has been named the father of modern science.
Adam Riess, Nobel Laureate in Physics, writes of the book;
It is fashionable to invoke Galileo on both sides of any debate to claim the mantle of truth. In Galileo and the Science Deniers, Livio teaches us the method by which Galileo found the truth – a process more powerful than rhetoric – examination. Today more than ever we need to understand what made Galileo synonymous with finding the truth.
While teaching as head Mathematician at Padua University, Galileo became embroiled in an ongoing and heated public debate with his colleague Cesare Cremonini, a renowned Natural Philosopher.
Cremonini, who followed the Aristotle school of belief that the planets (including the sun) orbit the Earth publicly denounced Galileo writing; It is hard to realize what a fundamental blow to all Natural Philosophy it would be if a mere Mathematician could prove actual change in the heavens.
As Cremonini believed that heavenly bodies were created by God, he argued that Galileo’s measurements could not be accurate because he was using mortal instruments to measure the divine.
Galileo responded by publishing a well-reasoned discussion, in colloquial dialect rather than high Latin, between two rural peasants.
One of the peasants remarks: When it comes to measuring things we shouldn’t trust Philosophers, after all, what have they ever measured? We should instead trust in the measurements of the Mathematicians who care not whether something is fashioned from the divine or from polenta, because their measurements will still hold true.
At a young age, while watching a lamp swinging in the Pisa Cathedral, Galileo discovered that each full swing of a pendulum takes exactly the same amount of time regardless of whether the arc of the swing is wide or narrow. He used his own pulse to measure the time of each of the lamp’s swings. Many years later after studying medicine at the University of Pisa he used this knowledge to create the Harmonic Oscillator, a machine that accurately measures the human heart rate.
Galileo (1564-1642) challenged some of the fundamental knowledge of his time, providing proof that certain long held beliefs were incorrect, and paving the way for a better scientific future.
In his time it was accepted that the Earth was at the centre of the universe and the planets, including the sun, rotated around it. Thanks to Galileo’s tenacious observation of the natural world with his new and ultra powered telescope, coupled with his meticulous note taking, he was able to plot the movements of the planets around the sun.
Never happy to take someone else’s word, Galileo wanted to test everything for himself before forming his beliefs. This led him to his most famous experiment. Legend has it, he simultaneously dropped a heavy ball and a light ball from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa to test which would fall the fastest.
Counter to the ‘understood knowledge’ of the day, Galileo was able to prove that the balls would reach the ground at the same speed, despite their different weights.
In anticipation of the world premiere of the Galileo: Scientist, Scholar, Visionary exhibition in February 2021 we would like share with you some of our most intriguing findings about the Italian natural philosopher, astronomer and mathematician. While some of these facts are obscure, Galileo’s discoveries four centuries ago enabled great paradigm shifts in science, and paved the way for space travel in the 20th and 21st Centuries.