Young Galileo Galilei

The One Chained To The Ground Yet Gazing At The Stars

September 17, 2020
Young Polymaths

Quick Intro

The Greatest Wisdom Is To Get To Know Oneself

Today, we take the authority associated with the world of science for granted; in the 16th-century, however, there was perhaps no other institution on the planet that held a monopoly on ideas & truths quite like the Church. Challenging these pious ideas, regardless of conviction or legitimate reasoning, was literal heresy.

So it’s hard to highlight just how much courage entry #16 in this series exhibited; a less-spoken part of the legend, Galileo Galilei demonstrated extraordinary resilience from both financial & legal pressures throughout his life. Despite this, his accomplishments are on par & very deserving of his place among fellow polymaths; to better understand the nature & nurture that gave us Galileo, we once again ask — what was he like in his twenties?

Note-Worthy Accomplishments

— Prolific mechanical engineer & inventor that created the thermoscope, military compass, hydrostatic balance & a water pump

—Father of Observational Astronomy that advanced the telescope (x30) & made numerous ground-breaking astronomical discoveries

— Father of Natural Sciences that evangelized the scientific method, predicted gravity/relatively & openly-challenged the geocentric model

— Eminent University lecturer & scientific author that published multiple significant STEM tomes (The Assayer, Dialoga Sopra, Sidereus Nunciu,etc…)

20s To 30s (1584–1594)

The son of a court musician, Galileo was the first-born in a rather large family with 5 siblings; understandably, the lower-middle- class was consistently financially stretched. He nonetheless grew up on the fringes of the Medici court & was fascinated by the art of spectacle & display.

Although Galileo seriously considered the priesthood as a young man, at his father’s urging he instead enrolled in 1580 at the University of Pisa for a medical degree. As the legend goes, sometime around 1581, while studying, he noticed a swinging chandelier whose motions captivated his curiosity.

University of Pisa
University of Pisa

The year he turned twenty, 1584, Galileo was still ardently studying away at the University of Pisa — with the initial goal of becoming a physician. However, after accidentally attending a lecture in geometry, & already interested in the principles of motion, he talked his reluctant father into letting him switch to study mathematics & natural philosophy (general science).

At twenty-one, the very next year, his fascination with motion evolved into practical research & he began conducting an independent study on weight & the varying methods of measuring it. Unfortunately, this same year, Galileo’s parents delivered the heartbreaking news that they could no longer afford his tuition; unable to secure a part-time position that worked with his academic schedule, Galileo withdrew from the University. To survive, he turned to private tutoring primary school children in general math & science topics.

Fortunately, Galileo never wavered from his research among the personal turmoil. As a result, at the age of twenty-two he published his first major title & notable invention. Titled The Little Balance, the dissertation focused on a new method of weighing diminutive amounts of gold through the clever use of hydro-statics. The book, along with the invention required for the principles discussed (hydrostatic scale), catapulted Galileo’s reputation among academic circles.

Hydrostatic Scale
Hydrostatic Scale

With his newfound network & steadier financial footing, Galileo traveled; from Pisa, Siena, Rome & finally settling in Florence in 1588, twenty-four year-old Galileo maintained himself through private tutoring. Once more anchored to a single location, he turned to deeply researching the physics phenomena that originally piqued his curiosity: swinging pendulums. Additionally, outside of the sciences, he reveled in the cultural center that was Florence, befriending burgeoning scientists & artists such as Ludovico Cigoli. Through these connections, he also studied disegno, a term encompassing fine art, & obtained a part-time assistant position in the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence.

In poetic irony, at the young age of twenty-five, he was hired as a professor at the University of Pisa; the Alma-matter that he left out of financial desolation now sought his expertise in mathematics. Very famously, this is the same year that Galileo begins his research on the rate of falling objects; according to his first biographer, Galileo did indeed demonstrate his early work to colleagues by dropping weights from the Tower of Pisa.

The next two years (1590–91), Galileo put the finishing touches on what would eventually be one of his most important publications: On Motion (De Motu). Unfortunately, this period was also marked with repeated personal turmoil. First, & certainly most tragically, his father died unexpectedly; this triggered a second wave of issues as he suddenly inherited significant, additional financial responsibilities (among these, included supporting three siblings). Last, due to the sensitive nature of his latest research, which challenged Aristoletian physics, the University of Pisa declined to extend or renew his professorship position, leaving him unemployed. A single silver-lining, this was the year he met his beloved Marina Gamba (with whom he’d have three children, yet never married).

At twenty-eight, in 1592, Galileo obtained a second professorship with a much needed higher salary at the University of Padua. Shortly afterward, he was appointed as Chairman of Mathematics at Padua & held that position for twelve years.

Balancing lecturing, researching & inventing, his next major breakthrough occurred in 1594, the year he turned thirty; due to a clever alteration drawing power from horses, he was awarded a patent on a new type of water pump by the Venetian Senate.

Quirks, Rumors & Controversies

Alas, like those in the series before him, Galileo possessed a few intricacies, quirks & demons — he certainly wasn’t without his faults. Most famously, Galileo very publicly fought & lost with the Catholic Church, eventually leading to a permanent house arrest. And while many biographies rightly scrutinize the egregious actions of the Church, many overlook Galileo’s role; as it turns out, Galileo didn’t do himself any favors.

To properly contextualize, we first need to understand the reputation he attained before the two major showdowns (1616 & 1633). Warm & kind Galileo decidedly was not; quite the opposite, according to Arthur Koestler, a historian & journalist:

Galileo had a rare gift of provoking enmity; cold, unrelenting hostility which genius plus arrogance minus humility creates among mediocrities, he was brash, abrasive, proud, & provocative.

Galileo was a tremendously effective writer & rhetorician who played his audience masterfully. His pen soaked in sarcasm & he refused to concede even the most minute of points, often attacking relentlessly & disproportionately. As an example, in the margin of a book by the Jesuit Antonio Rocco defending the Ptolemaic astronomy, Galileo wrote

Ignoramus, Elephant, Fool, Dunce…Eunuch

As we’ll see shortly, this habit of exacerbating tensions & embarrassing opponents worked against him when weighted into the Church’s sentencing.

First Run-In — 1616

Due to the scope of this series, we’ve skipped over the timeline of his astronomy career which leads up to this first showdown. To summarize, he improved the telescope drastically in 1609, which lead to year after year of astronomical discoveries — among these was the different phases of Venus. This particular observation convinced him that Copernicus’ recently published & highly controversial heliocentric theory was correct; clearly, this went against Scripture which states that the geocentric model is the correct solar model. Militant in his convictions, Galileo lectured, presented & debated with Jesuit astronomers, attempting to convince them of his views; as a letter to Kepler shows, these early conversations went…poorly:

I wish that we might laugh at the remarkable stupidity of the common herd. What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times?

Evident from the prose above, it was understandably only a matter of time before he crossed paths with someone vengeful enough to escalate the issue & accuse him of heresy. And exactly that happened in early 1614 when a Dominican Friar by the name of Niccolo Lorini acquired a copy of a similar letter Galileo had sent to a former student (Benedetto Castelli); Lorini sent the letter to the Secretary of the Inquisition, Cardinal Paolo Sfondrati. Hearing through the vineyard of his brewing problem, Galileo, against the advice of friends & allies, headed to Rome in late 1615 to preemptively defend himself.

On February 24, 1616, the Inquisition delivered their unanimous report on heliocentrism & Galileo:

foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture

The position was surprising to absolutely no one & led to the following stern warning for Galileo:

to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it… to abandon completely… the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.

What was surprising, however, was additional reasoning from the Church. Yes, they argued that contradicting Scripture was heresy, however, they also mentioned that if incontrovertible evidence of the heliocentrism model was presented, then they’d have to re-evaluate their understanding of the Bible. In other words, they were open reviewing the geocentric model, Galileo simply didn’t provide irrefutable evidence. Yes, by censoring him the Church unfairly impeded the progress of arguably the greatest scientist alive; however, he walked away relatively unscathed, left in peace.

Second Run-In — 1633

Galileo was well-behaved (or more so distracted) for a short few years; but in 1623, Pope Gregory XV was succeeded by Pope Urban VIII, who poured praise on the renowned scientist. Likely misinterpreting this as a signal to freely ignore his previous warning, Galileo begins writing his magnum opus, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.

As the title implies, the narrative unfolds as a dialogue among three protagonists: a Copernican scientist, Salviati, an impartial scholar, Sagredo, & a ponderous Aristotelian named Simplicio. Simplicio, with the same connotation as simple, or “simpleton,” was the representative tasked with defending the Church’s geocentric model. The proverbial cherry on top, Galileo had shown some, but not all passages to Pope Urban, who insisted on including his own words & arguments as the pro-geocentric argument. Willingly, Galileo did just this, echoing the Pope’s own words through a farcical character.

Fortunately & unfortunately, the book, finally published in 1632 was an immediate smash hit. Superbly well-received by the general public as educational & entertaining, the Church & Pope Urban, on the other hand, reacted viscerally. Pope Urban felt confused, shamed & betrayed by the scientist he had coddled, praised & celebrated.

Understandably, alienating the Pope as an ally translated to a much more threatening atmosphere the second time around — the Church was not nearly as understanding & peaceful. Within a year of releasing the book, Galileo was again headed to Rome (this time forced) to await his trial. Again, credit due to the Church. They were furious & threatening Galileo under physical torture, yet when he arrived in 1633, he was moved to the Palace of the Holy Office where he was given a five-room suite & a servant.

Galileo’s trial before the Holy Inquisition began on April 12, 1633, when he had his first hearing. The trial spanned the course of four hearings, culminating two months later on June 21, 1633. The Inquisition plainly argued that Galileo broke the very clear warning handed to him ~15 years earlier by blatantly advocating for heliocentrism. Galileo, in his defense, argued that he maintained a neutral position the entire time & that any leaning towards heliocentrism was simply due to an interpretation of the arguments provided; throughout the trial, he adamantly refused to admit that he held to heliocentrism himself.

Unfortunately, this is where Galileo’s reputation as a witty, yet mischievously sarcastic orator backfired spectacularly; not surprising, absolutely no one believed his argument that it was purely coincidental that the character literally named “simpleton” presented purposefully weak & inane arguments. As a result, in July 1633, Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” under house imprisonment for life & banned from selling or mentioning Dialogues:

We order that by a public edict the book of Dialogues of Galileo Galilei be prohibited, and We condemn thee to the prison of this Holy Office during Our will and pleasure; and as a salutary penance We enjoin on thee that for the space of three years thou shalt recite once a week the Seven Penitential Psalms=

In Closing

Who was Galileo Galilei in his twenties? A brilliant mathematician, physicist, engineer, lecturer & author; a well-known professor & inventor with a rapidly growing reputation & list of accomplishments.

Was he accomplished in his twenties? Absolutely. Despite dropping out, by the time he was thirty Galileo had already published one publicly-lauded book, patented different two inventions & attained a position as Chairman of Mathematics.

The best type of early success, Galileo aged magnificently into late success — rarely wavering in productivity (his astronomy journey had yet to begin)! This, again, in my opinion, points to a value of his that is drastically overlooked: resilience. Recall that his father passed, leaving him with three dependents, the same year he was intermittently unemployed; it’s rarely discussed, but he was consistently financially pressured. On top of this, of course, came the decades of incessant legal stress that came from his battle with the Catholic Church. His genius & creativity are well-documented & rightly-legendary, but the resilience behind the scenes is equally deserving of recognition; through it all, Galileo remained true to himself & his curiosity, a choice that left behind a story worth telling.


Science vs. Faith

Galileo: Watcher of The Skies

Galilei, Stanford Encyclopedia

Galileo Galilei: A Life From Beginning To End

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