Galileo Galilei

BornGalileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de’ Galilei
15 February 1564
PisaDuchy of Florence
Died8 January 1642 (aged 77)
ArcetriGrand Duchy of Tuscany
EducationUniversity of Pisa
Known forAnalytical dynamics
observational astronomy

Scientific Career

FieldsAstronomyphysicsengineeringnatural philosophymathematics
InstitutionsUniversity of PisaUniversity of Padua
PatronsCosimo II de MediciFederico CesiFerdinando II de MediciFra Paolo SarpiFrancesco Maria del Monte
Academic advisorsOstilio Ricci da Fermo
Notable studentsBenedetto
Castelli Mario

the father of modern science and made major contributions to the fields of physics, astronomy, cosmology, mathematics and philosophy. Galileo invented an improved telescope that let him observe and describe the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the phases of Venus, sunspots and the rugged lunar surface. His flair for self-promotion earned him powerful friends among Italy’s ruling elite and enemies among the Catholic Church’s leaders. Galileo’s advocacy of a heliocentric universe brought him before religious authorities in 1616 and again in 1633, when he was forced to recant and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

Galileo’s Early Life, Education and Experiments

Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa in 1564, the first of six children of Vincenzo Galilei, a musician and scholar. In 1581 he entered the University of Pisa at age 16 to study medicine, but was soon sidetracked by mathematics. He left without finishing his degree (yes, Galileo was a college dropout!). In 1583 he made his first important discovery, describing the rules that govern the motion of pendulums.

Galileo showing the Doge of Venicehow to use the telescope (fresco by Giuseppe Bertini)

Did you know? After being forced during his trial to admit that the Earth was the stationary center of the universe, Galileo allegedly muttered, “Eppur si muove!” (“Yet it moves!” ). The first direct attribution of the quote to Galileo dates to 125 years after the trial, though it appears on a wall behind him in a 1634 Spanish painting commissioned by one of Galileo’s friends.

From 1589 to 1610, Galileo was chair of mathematics at the universities of Pisa and then Padua. During those years he performed the experiments with falling bodies that made his most significant contribution to physics.

Galileo had three children with Marina Gamba, whom he never married: Two daughters, Virginia (Later “Sister Maria Celeste”) and Livia Galilei, and a son, Vincenzo Gamba. Despite his own later troubles with the Catholic Church, both of Galileo’s daughters became nuns in a convent near Florence.

Galileo, Telescopes and the Medici Court

In 1609 Galileo built his first telescope, improving upon a Dutch design. In January of 1610 he discovered four new “stars” orbiting Jupiter—the planet’s four largest moons. He quickly published a short treatise outlining his discoveries, “Siderius Nuncius” (“The Starry Messenger”), which also contained observations of the moon’s surface and descriptions of a multitude of new stars in the Milky Way. In an attempt to gain favor with the powerful grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II de Medici, he suggested Jupiter’s moons be called the “Medician Stars.”

“The Starry Messenger” made Galileo a celebrity in Italy. Cosimo II appointed him mathematician and philosopher to the Medicis, offering him a platform for proclaiming his theories and ridiculing his opponents.

Galileo’s observations contradicted the Aristotelian view of the universe, then widely accepted by both scientists and theologians. The moon’s rugged surface went against the idea of heavenly perfection, and the orbits of the Medician stars violated the geocentric notion that the heavens revolved around Earth.

Statue of Galileo by Pio Fedi(1815–1892) inside the Lanyon Building of the Queen’s University of Belfast. Sir William Whitla (Professor of Materia Medica 1890–1919) brought the statue back from Italy and donated it to the University.

Galileo Galilei’s Trial

In 1616 the Catholic Church placed Nicholas Copernicus’s “De Revolutionibus,” the first modern scientific argument for a heliocentric (sun-centered) universe, on its index of banned books. Pope Paul V summoned Galileo to Rome and told him he could no longer support Copernicus publicly.

In 1632 Galileo published his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” which supposedly presented arguments for both sides of the heliocentrism debate. His attempt at balance fooled no one, and it especially didn’t help that his advocate for geocentrism was named “Simplicius.”

Galileo was summoned before the Roman Inquisition in 1633. At first he denied that he had advocated heliocentrism, but later he said he had only done so unintentionally. Galileo was convicted of “vehement suspicion of heresy” and under threat of torture forced to express sorrow and curse his errors.

Nearly 70 at the time of his trial, Galileo lived his last nine years under comfortable house arrest, writing a summary of his early motion experiments that became his final great scientific work. He died in Arcetri near Florence, Italy on January 8, 1642 at age 77 after suffering from heart palpitations and a fever.

What Was Galileo Famous For? 

Statue outside the UffiziFlorence

Galileo’s laws of motion, made from his measurements that all bodies accelerate at the same rate regardless of their mass or size, paved the way for the codification of classical mechanics by Isaac Newton. Galileo’s heliocentrism (with modifications by Kepler) soon became accepted scientific fact. His inventions, from compasses and balances to improved telescopes and microscopes, revolutionized astronomy and biology. Galilleo discovered craters and mountains on the moon, the phases of Venus, Jupiter’s moons and the stars of the Milky Way. His penchant for thoughtful and inventive experimentation pushed the scientific method toward its modern form.

In his conflict with the Church, Galileo was also largely vindicated. Enlightenmentthinkers like Voltaire used tales of his trial (often in simplified and exaggerated form) to portray Galileo as a martyr for objectivity. Recent scholarship suggests Galileo’s actual trial and punishment were as much a matter of courtly intrigue and philosophical minutiae as of inherent tension between religion and science.

In 1744 Galileo’s “Dialogue” was removed from the Church’s list of banned books, and in the 20th century Popes Pius XII and John Paul II made official statements of regret for how the Church had treated Galileo


International Year of Astronomy commemorative coin

Galileo’s astronomical discoveries and investigations into the Copernican theory have led to a lasting legacy which includes the categorisation of the four large moons of Jupiter discovered by Galileo (IoEuropaGanymede and Callisto) as the Galilean moons. Other scientific endeavours and principles are named after Galileo including the Galileo spacecraft, the first spacecraft to enter orbit around Jupiter, the proposed Galileo global satellite navigation system, the transformation between inertial systems in classical mechanics denoted Galilean transformation and the Gal (unit), sometimes known as the Galileo, which is a non-SI unit of acceleration.

Partly because the year 2009 was the fourth centenary of Galileo’s first recorded astronomical observations with the telescope, the United Nations scheduled it to be the International Year of Astronomy. A global scheme was laid out by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), also endorsed by UNESCO—the UN body responsible for educational, scientific and cultural matters. The International Year of Astronomy 2009 was intended to be a global celebration of astronomy and its contributions to society and culture, stimulating worldwide interest not only in astronomy but science in general, with a particular slant towards young people. Planet Galileo and asteroid 697 Galilea are named in his honour.


Galileo continued to receive visitors until 1642, when, after suffering fever and heart palpitations, he died on 8 January 1642, aged 77. The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II, wished to bury him in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and other ancestors, and to erect a marble mausoleum in his honour.

Tomb of Galileo, Santa Croce, Florence

These plans were dropped, however, after Pope Urban VIII and his nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, protested, because Galileo had been condemned by the Catholic Church for “vehement suspicion of heresy”. He was instead buried in a small room next to the novices’ chapel at the end of a corridor from the southern transept of the basilica to the sacristy. He was reburied in the main body of the basilica in 1737 after a monument had been erected there in his honour; during this move, three fingers and a tooth were removed from his remains. These fingers are currently on exhibition at the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy.

Middle finger of Galileo’s right hand


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