This series has six easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: His Birth and Youth.
When the Copernican system of astronomy was published to the world (1543) it had to encounter, as all capital theories and discoveries in science have done, the criticism, and, for some time, the opposition, of men holding other views. After Copernicus, the next great name in modern science is that of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), who rejected the theory of Copernicus in favor of a modified form of the Ptolemaic system. This was still taught in the schools when two mighty contemporaries, geniuses of science, rose to overthrow it forever.
These men were Galileo Galilei — commonly known as Galileo — and Kepler, both astronomers, though Galileo’s scientific work covered also a much wider field. He is regarded today as marking a distinct epoch in the progress of the world, and the following account of his work by the eminent scientist, Sir Oliver Lodge, expresses no more than a just appreciation of his great services to mankind.
This selection is from Pioneers of Science by Sir Oliver Lodge published in 1893. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Sir Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) was a physicist, a science writer, and a radio pioneer.
Place: Pisa, Italy
Galileo exercised a vast influence on the development of human thought. A man of great and wide culture, a so-called universal genius, it is as an experimental philosopher that he takes the first rank. In this capacity he must be placed alongside of Archimedes, and it is pretty certain that between the two there was no man of magnitude equal to either in experimental philosophy. It is perhaps too bold a speculation, but I venture to doubt whether in succeeding generations we find his equal in the domain of purely experimental science until we come to Faraday. Faraday was no doubt his superior, but I know of no other of whom the like can unhesitatingly be said. In mathematical and deductive science, of course, it is quite otherwise. Kepler, for instance, and many men before and since, have far excelled Galileo in mathematical skill and power, though at the same time his achievements in this department are by no means to be despised.
Born at Pisa on the very day that Michelangelo lay dying in Rome, he inherited from his father a noble name, cultivated tastes, a keen love of truth, and an impoverished patrimony. Vincenzo de Galilei, a descendant of the important Bonajuti family, was himself a mathematician and a musician, and in a book of his still extant he declares himself in favor of free and open inquiry into scientific matters, unrestrained by the weight of authority and tradition. In all probability the son imbibed these precepts: certainly he acted on them.
Vincenzo, having himself experienced the unremunerative character of scientific work, had a horror of his son’s taking to it, especially as in his boyhood he was always constructing ingenious mechanical toys and exhibiting other marks of precocity. So the son was destined for business — to be, in fact, a cloth-dealer. But he was to receive a good education first, and was sent to an excellent convent school.
Here he made rapid progress, and soon excelled in all branches of classics and literature. He delighted in poetry, and in later years wrote several essays on Dante, Tasso, and Ariosto, besides composing some tolerable poems himself. He played skilfully on several musical instruments, especially on the lute, of which indeed he became a master, and on which he solaced himself when quite an old man. Besides this, he seems to have had some skill as an artist, which was useful afterward in illustrating his discoveries, and to have had a fine sensibility as an art critic, for we find several eminent painters of that day acknowledging the value of the opinion of the young Galileo.
Perceiving all this display of ability, the father wisely came to the conclusion that the selling of woollen stuffs would hardly satisfy his aspirations for long, and that it was worth a sacrifice to send him to the university. So to the university of his native town he went, with the avowed object of studying medicine, that career seeming the most likely to be profitable. Old Vincenzo’s horror of mathematics or science as a means of obtaining a livelihood is justified by the fact that while the university professor of medicine received two thousand scudi a year, the professor of mathematics had only sixty; that is thirteen pounds a year, or seven and a half pence a day. So the son had been kept properly ignorant of such poverty-stricken subjects, and to study medicine he went.
But his natural bent showed itself even here. For praying one day in the cathedral, like a good Catholic as he was all his life, his attention was arrested by the great lamp which, after lighting it, the verger had left swinging to and fro. Galileo proceeded to time its swings by the only watch he possessed — viz., his own pulse. He noticed that the time of swing remained, as near as he could tell, the same, notwithstanding the fact that the swings were getting smaller and smaller.
By subsequent experiment he verified the law, and the isochronism of the pendulum was discovered. An immensely important practical discovery this, for upon it all modern clocks are based; and Huyghens soon applied it to the astronomical clock, which up to that time had been a crude and quite untrustworthy instrument.
The best clock which Tycho Brahe could get for his observatory was inferior to one that may now be purchased for a few shillings; and this change is owing to the discovery of the pendulum by Galileo. Not that he applied it to clocks; he was not thinking of astronomy, he was thinking of medicine, and wanted to count people’s pulses. The pendulum served; and “pulsilogies,” as they were called, were thus introduced to and used by medical practitioners.
The Tuscan court came to Pisa for the summer months — for it was then a seaside place — and among the suite was Ostillio Ricci, a distinguished mathematician and old friend of the Galileo family. The youth visited him, and one day, it is said, heard a lesson in Euclid being given by Ricci to the pages while he stood outside the door entranced. Anyhow, he implored Ricci to help him into some knowledge of mathematics, and the old man willingly consented. So he mastered Euclid, and passed on to Archimedes, for whom he acquired a great veneration.
His father soon heard of this obnoxious proclivity, and did what he could to divert him back to medicine again. But it was no use. Underneath his Galen and Hippocrates were secreted copies of Euclid and Archimedes, to be studied at every available opportunity. Old Vincenzo perceived the bent of genius to be too strong for him, and at last gave way. With prodigious rapidity the released philosopher now assimilated the elements of mathematics and physics, and at twenty-six we find him appointed for three years to the university chair of mathematics, and enjoying the paternally dreaded stipend of seven and a half pence a day.
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