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This week’s question was asked by a friend.

QUESTION: Why was Galileo famous?

ANSWER: Galileo is called “the father of the scientific method.” Prior to Galileo’s time, people did not run experiments or test out new ideas. People looked to the ancient classical thinkers and philosophers, such as Aristotle, and believed their ideas and teachings were true. Galileo wanted to test the principles and ideas to see if they were really accurate.

Born in 1564 in Pisa, Italy, Galileo grew up during the Italian Renaissance. His father, a famous musician, moved his family to Florence when Galileo was 10 years old. He was an excellent student and an accomplished musician in his own right but gravitated to medicine to become a doctor. He moved back to his home town of Pisa.

At the university, Galileo became interested in math and physics. Sitting in church, at age 19, Galileo was watching a lamp swing back and forth. The time it took the lamp to swing back and forth was the exact amount each time, regardless of how far it swung. He used his own pulse as a timer. His observation did not agree with the common scientific principles of the day. The experience was a wake-up call to Galileo. What other established teachings might be in error?

In 1592, at age 28, Galileo performed one of his most famous experiments. The conventional belief was that if you dropped two items of different weight, both the same size and shape, the heavier item would fall faster and land first.

Galileo tested this established idea by dropping two balls of the same size and weight from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They hit the ground at the same time. Galileo’s experiments did not always go over well with the authorities, especially church authorities. They did not want traditional views challenged.

Up to about the middle 1500s, people believed that the sun, moon, and stars revolved around the Earth. The Earth was the center of everything, a geocentric view. Copernicus, a Polish mathematician and astronomer, proposed a sun-centered, or heliocentric view. He published his opinions in about 1543, just before his death.

Galileo studied Copernicus’ work and in 1609 a stroke of real good luck befell him. He heard of an invention in Holland that could make far away items appear much closer. He made improvements in that telescope and turned it to the heavens.

He witnessed four moons revolving around Jupiter. Here was a miniature solar system. If Jupiter could have bodies revolving around it, perhaps the mighty sun could have planets moving around it.

Galileo saw Venus go through phases, which means that Venus passes between the Earth and the sun. He saw sunspots on the face of the sun. The sun should be unchanging and without blemish, according to the teachings of the time. He witnessed craters on the moon, not smooth as taught by the scholars of the day.

Galileo’s 1632 book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, got him in big trouble with the powerful Catholic Church authorities. He was convinced that the Earth orbits the Sun, just as Copernicus described. But church rulers considered his teachings to be wrong and dangerous.

Galileo was ordered to Rome to answer to the Inquisition. Found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” Galileo was forced to recant and was sentenced to life in prison. He actually spent the next 10 years under house arrest in his home in Tuscany.

His work continued as he wrote one of his best-known works, Two New Sciences, which summarized work he had done decades earlier. It laid the foundations of kinematics (how things move) and strength of materials.

Stephen Hawking said that Galileo bears more responsibility for the birth of modern science than anyone else. Albert Einstein called him the father of modern science.

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Larry Scheckel is a retired Tomah High School physics teacher.


Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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