1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Galileo Galilei
GALILEO GALILEI (1564–1642), Italian astronomer and experimental philosopher, was born at Pisa on the 15th of February 1564. His father, Vincenzio, was an impoverished descendant of a noble Florentine house, which had exchanged the surname of Bonajuti for that of Galilei, on the election, in 1343, of one of its members, Tommaso de’ Bonajuti, to the college of the twelve Buonuomini. The family, which was nineteen times represented in the signoria, and in 1445 gave a gonfalonier to Florence, flourished with the republic and declined with its fall. Vincenzio Galilei was a man of better parts than fortune. He was a competent mathematician, wrote with considerable ability on the theory and practice of music, and was especially distinguished amongst his contemporaries for the grace and skill of his performance upon the lute. By his wife, Giulia Ammannati of Pescia, he had three sons and four daughters.
From his earliest childhood Galileo, the eldest of the family, was remarkable for intellectual aptitude as well as for mechanical invention. His favourite pastime was the construction of original and ingenious toy-machines; but his application to literary studies was equally conspicuous. In the monastery of Vallombrosa, near Florence, where his education was principally conducted, he not only made himself acquainted with the best Latin authors, but acquired a fair command of the Greek tongue, thus laying the foundation of his brilliant and elegant style. From one of the monks he also received instruction in logic; but the subtleties of the scholastic science were thoroughly distasteful to him. A document published by F. Selmi in 1864 proves that he was at this time so far attracted towards a religious life as to have joined the novitiate; but his father, who had other designs for him, seized the opportunity of an attack of ophthalmia to withdraw him permanently from the care of the monks. Having had personal experience of the unremunerative character both of music and of mathematics, he desired that his son should apply himself to the cultivation of medicine, and, not without some straining of his slender resources, placed him, before he had completed his eighteenth year, at the university of Pisa. He accordingly matriculated there on the 5th of November 1581, and immediately entered upon attendance at the lectures of the celebrated physician and botanist, Andrea Cesalpino.
The natural gifts of the young student seemed at this time equally ready to develop in any direction towards which choice or hazard might incline them. In musical skill and invention he already vied with the best professors of the art in Italy; his personal taste would have led him to choose painting as his profession, and one of the most eminent artists of his day, Lodovico Cigoli, owned that to his judgment and counsel he was mainly indebted for the success of his works. In 1581, while watching a lamp set swinging in the cathedral of Pisa, he observed that, whatever the range of its oscillations, they were invariably executed in equal times. The experimental verification of this fact led him to the important discovery of the isochronism of the pendulum. He at first applied the new principle to pulse-measurement, and more than fifty years later turned it to account in the construction of an astronomical clock. Up to this time he was entirely ignorant of mathematics, his father having carefully held him aloof from a study which he rightly apprehended would lead to his total alienation from that of medicine. Accident, however, frustrated this purpose. A lesson in geometry, given by Ostilio Ricci to the pages of the grand-ducal court, chanced, tradition avers, to have Galileo for an unseen listener; his attention was riveted, his dormant genius was roused, and he threw all his energies into the new pursuit thus unexpectedly presented to him. With Ricci’s assistance, he rapidly mastered the elements of the science, and eventually extorted his father’s reluctant permission to exchange Hippocrates and Galen for Euclid and Archimedes. In 1585 he was withdrawn from the university, through lack of means, before he had taken a degree, and returned to Florence, where his family habitually resided. We next hear of him as lecturing before the Florentine Academy on the site and dimensions of Dante’s Inferno; and he shortly afterwards published an essay descriptive of his invention of the hydrostatic balance, which rapidly made his name known throughout Italy. His first patron was the Marchese Guidubaldo del Monte of Pesaro, a man equally eminent in science, and influential through family connexions. At the Marchese’s request he wrote, in 1588, a treatise on the centre of gravity in solids, which obtained for him, together with the title of “the Archimedes of his time,” the honourable though not lucrative post of mathematical lecturer at the Pisan university. During the ensuing two years (1589–1591) he carried on that remarkable series of experiments by which he established the first principles of dynamics and earned the undying hostility of bigoted Aristotelians. From the leaning tower of Pisa he afforded to all the professors and students of the university ocular demonstration of the falsehood of the Peripatetic dictum that heavy bodies fall with velocities proportional to their weights, and with unanswerable logic demolished all the time-honoured maxims of the schools regarding the motion of projectiles, and elemental weight or levity. But while he convinced, he failed to conciliate his adversaries. The keen sarcasm of his polished rhetoric was not calculated to soothe the susceptibilities of men already smarting under the deprivation of their most cherished illusions. He seems, in addition, to have compromised his position with the grand-ducal family by the imprudent candour with which he condemned a machine for clearing the port of Leghorn, invented by Giovanni de’ Medici, an illegitimate son of Cosmo I. Princely favour being withdrawn, private rancour was free to show itself. He was publicly hissed at his lecture, and found it prudent to resign his professorship and withdraw to Florence in 1591. Through the death of his father in July of that year family cares and responsibilities devolved upon him, and thus his nomination to the chair of mathematics at the university of Padua, secured by the influence of the Marchese Guidubaldo with the Venetian senate, was welcome both as affording a relief from pecuniary embarrassment and as opening a field for scientific distinction.
His residence at Padua, which extended over a period of eighteen years, from 1592 to 1610, was a course of uninterrupted prosperity. His appointment was three times renewed, on each occasion with the expressions of the highest esteem on the part of the governing body, and his yearly salary was progressively raised from 180 to 1000 florins. His lectures were attended by persons of the highest distinction from all parts of Europe, and such was the charm of his demonstrations that a hall capable of containing 2000 people had eventually to be assigned for the accommodation of the overflowing audiences which they attracted. His invention of the proportional compass or sector—an implement still used in geometrical drawing—dates from 1597; and about the same time he constructed the first thermometer, consisting of a bulb and tube filled with air and water, and terminating in a vessel of water. In this instrument the results of varying atmospheric pressure were not distinguishable from the expansive and contractive effects of heat and cold, and it became an efficient measure of temperature only when Rinieri, in 1646, introduced the improvement of hermetically sealing the liquid in glass. The substitution, in 1670, of mercury for water completed the modern thermometer.
Galileo seems, at an early period of his life, to have adopted the Copernican theory of the solar system, and was deterred from avowing his opinions—as is proved by his letter to Kepler of August 4, 1597—by the fear of ridicule rather than of persecution. The appearance, in September 1604, of a new star in the constellation Serpentarius afforded him indeed an opportunity, of which he eagerly availed himself, for making an onslaught upon the Aristotelian axiom of the incorruptibility of the heavens; but he continued to conform his public teachings in the main to Ptolemaic principles, until the discovery of a novel and potent implement of research in the shape of the telescope (q.v.) placed at his command startling and hitherto unsuspected evidence as to the constitution and mutual relations of the heavenly bodies. Galileo was not the original inventor of the telescope. That honour must be assigned to Johannes Lippershey, an obscure optician of Middleburg, who, on the 2nd of October 1608, petitioned the states-general of the Low Countries for exclusive rights in the manufacture of an instrument for increasing the apparent size of remote objects. A rumour of the new invention, which reached Venice in June 1609, sufficed to set Galileo on the track; and after one night’s profound meditation on the principles of refraction, he succeeded in producing a telescope of threefold magnifying power. Upon this first attempt he rapidly improved, until he attained to a power of thirty-two, and his instruments, of which he manufactured hundreds with his own hands, were soon in request in every part of Europe. Two lenses only—a plano-convex and a plano-concave—were needed for the composition of each, and this simple principle is that still employed in the construction of opera-glasses. Galileo’s direction of his new instrument to the heavens formed an era in the history of astronomy. Discoveries followed upon it with astounding rapidity and in bewildering variety. The Sidereus Nuncius, published at Venice early in 1610, contained the first-fruits of the new mode of investigation, which were sufficient to excite learned amazement on both sides of the Alps. The mountainous configuration of the moon’s surface was there first described, and the so-called “phosphorescence” of the dark portion of our satellite attributed to its true cause—namely, illumination by sunlight reflected from the earth. All the time-worn fables and conjectures regarding the composition of the Milky Way were at once dissipated by the simple statement that to the eye, reinforced by the telescope, it appeared as a congeries of lesser stars, while the great nebulae were equally declared to be resolvable into similar elements. But the discovery which was at once perceived to be most important in itself, and most revolutionary in its effects, was that of Jupiter’s satellites, first seen by Galileo on the 7th of January 1610, and by him named Sidera Medicea, in honour of the grand-duke of Tuscany, Cosmo II., who had been his pupil, and was about to become his employer. An illustration is, with the general run of mankind, more powerful to convince than an argument; and the cogency of the visible plea for the Copernican theory offered by the miniature system, then first disclosed to view, was recognizable in the triumph of its advocates as well as in the increased acrimony of its opponents.
In September 1610 Galileo finally abandoned Padua for Florence. His researches with the telescope had been rewarded by the Venetian senate with the appointment for life to his professorship, at an unprecedentedly high salary. His discovery of the “Medicean Stars” was acknowledged by his nomination (July 12, 1610) as philosopher and mathematician extraordinary to the grand-duke of Tuscany. The emoluments of this office, which involved no duties save that of continuing his scientific labours, were fixed at 1000 scudi; and it was the desire of increased leisure, rather than the promptings of local patriotism, which induced him to accept an offer the original suggestion of which had indeed come from himself. Before the close of 1610 the memorable cycle of discoveries begun in the previous year was completed by the observation of the ansated or, as it appeared to Galileo, triple form of Saturn (the ring-formation was first recognized by Christiaan Huygens in 1655), of the phases of Venus, and of the spots upon the sun. As regards sun-spots, however, Johann Fabricius of Osteel in Friesland can claim priority of publication, if not of actual detection. In the spring of 1611 Galileo visited Rome, and exhibited in the gardens of the Quirinal Palace the telescopic wonders of the heavens to the most eminent personages at the pontifical court. Encouraged by the flattering reception accorded to him, he ventured, in his Letters on the Solar Spots, printed at Rome in 1613, to take up a more decided position towards that doctrine on the establishment of which, as he avowed in a letter to Belisario Vinta, secretary to the grand-duke, “all his life and being henceforward depended.” Even in the time of Copernicus some well-meaning persons, especially those of the reformed persuasion, had suspected a discrepancy between the new view of the solar system and certain passages of Scripture—a suspicion strengthened by the anti-Christian inferences drawn from it by Giordano Bruno; but the question was never formally debated until Galileo’s brilliant disclosures, enhanced by his formidable dialectic and enthusiastic zeal, irresistibly challenged for it the attention of the authorities. Although he had no desire to raise the theological issue, it must be admitted that, the discussion once set on foot, he threw himself into it with characteristic impetuosity, and thus helped to precipitate a decision which it was his interest to avert. In December 1613 a Benedictine monk named Benedetto Castelli, at that time professor of mathematics at the university of Pisa, wrote to inform Galileo of a recent discussion at the grand-ducal table, in which he had been called upon to defend the Copernican doctrine against theological objections. This task Castelli, who was a steady friend and disciple of the Tuscan astronomer, seems to have discharged with moderation and success. Galileo’s answer, written, as he said himself, currente calamo, was an exposition of a formal theory as to the relations of physical science to Holy Writ, still further developed in an elaborate apology addressed by him in the following year (1614) to Christina of Lorraine, dowager grand-duchess of Tuscany. Not satisfied with explaining adverse texts, he met his opponents with unwise audacity on their own ground, and endeavoured to produce scriptural confirmation of a system which seemed to the ignorant many an incredible paradox, and to the scientific few a beautiful but daring innovation. The rising agitation on the subject, fomented for their own purposes by the rabid Aristotelians of the schools, was heightened rather than allayed by these manifestoes, and on the fourth Sunday of the following Advent found a voice in the pulpit of Santa Maria Novella. Padre Caccini’s denunciation of the new astronomy was indeed disavowed and strongly condemned by his superiors; nevertheless, on the 5th of February 1615, another Dominican monk named Lorini laid Galileo’s letter to Castelli before the Inquisition.
Cardinal Robert Bellarmin was at that time by far the most influential member of the Sacred College. He was a man of vast learning and upright piety, but, although personally friendly to Galileo, there is no doubt that he saw in his scientific teachings a danger to religion. The year 1615 seems to have been a period of suspense. Galileo received, as the result of a conference between Cardinals Bellarmin and Del Monte, a semi-official warning to avoid theology, and limit himself to physical reasoning. “Write freely,” he was told by Monsignor Dini, “but keep outside the sacristy.” Unfortunately, he had already committed himself to dangerous ground. In December he repaired personally to Rome, full of confidence that the weight of his arguments and the vivacity of his eloquence could not fail to convert the entire pontifical court to his views. He was cordially received, and eagerly listened to, but his imprudent ardour served but to injure his cause. On the 24th of February 1616 the consulting theologians of the Holy Office characterized the two propositions—that the sun is immovable in the centre of the world, and that the earth has a diurnal motion of rotation—the first as “absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical, because expressly contrary to Holy Scripture,” and the second as “open to the same censure in philosophy, and at least erroneous as to faith.” Two days later Galileo was, by command of the pope (Paul V.), summoned to the palace of Cardinal Bellarmin, and there officially admonished not thenceforward to “hold, teach or defend” the condemned doctrine. This injunction he promised to obey. On the 5th of March the Congregation of the Index issued a decree reiterating, with the omission of the word “heretical,” the censure of the theologians, suspending, usque corrigatur, the great work of Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, and absolutely prohibiting a treatise by a Carmelite monk named Foscarini, which treated the same subject from a theological point of view. At the same time it was given to be understood that the new theory of the solar system might be held ex hypothesi, and the trivial verbal alterations introduced into the Polish astronomer’s book in 1620, when the work of revision was completed by Cardinal Gaetani, confirmed this interpretation. This edict, it is essential to observe, the responsibility for which rests with a disciplinary congregation in no sense representing the church, was never confirmed by the pope, and was virtually repealed in 1757 under Benedict XIV.
Galileo returned to Florence three months later, not ill-pleased, as his letters testify, with the result of his visit to Rome. He brought with him, for the refutation of calumnious reports circulated by his enemies, a written certificate from Cardinal Bellarmin, to the effect that no abjuration had been required of or penance imposed upon him. During a prolonged audience he had received from the pope assurances of private esteem and personal protection; and he trusted to his dialectical ingenuity to find the means of presenting his scientific convictions under the transparent veil of an hypothesis. Although a sincere Catholic, he seems to have laid but little stress on the secret admonition of the Holy Office, which his sanguine temperament encouraged him gradually to dismiss from his mind. He preserved no written memorandum of its terms, and it was represented to him, according to his own deposition in 1633, solely by Cardinal Bellarmin’s certificate, in which, for obvious reasons, it was glossed over rather than expressly recorded. For seven years, nevertheless, during which he led a life of studious retirement in the Villa Segni at Bellosguardo, near Florence, he maintained an almost unbroken silence. At the end of that time he appeared in public with his Saggiatore, a polemical treatise written in reply to the Libra astronomica of Padre Grassi (under the pseudonym of Lotario Sarsi), the Jesuit astronomer of the Collegio Romano. The subject in debate was the nature of comets, the conspicuous appearance of three of which bodies in the year 1618 furnished the occasion of the controversy. Galileo’s views, although erroneous, since he held comets to be mere atmospheric emanations reflecting sunlight after the evanescent fashion of a halo or a rainbow, were expressed with such triumphant vigour, and embellished with such telling sarcasms, that his opponent did not venture upon a reply. The Saggiatore was printed at Rome in October 1623 by the Academy of the Lincei, of which Galileo was a member, with a dedication to the new pope, Urban VIII., and notwithstanding some passages containing a covert defence of Copernican opinions, was received with acclamation by ecclesiastical, no less than by scientific authorities.
Everything seemed now to promise a close of unbroken prosperity to Galileo’s career. Maffeo Barberini, his warmest friend and admirer in the Sacred College, was, by the election of the 8th of August 1623, seated on the pontifical throne; and the marked distinction with which he was received on his visit of congratulation to Rome in 1624 encouraged him to hope for the realization of his utmost wishes. He received every mark of private favour. The pope admitted him to six long audiences in the course of two months, wrote an enthusiastic letter to the grand-duke praising the great astronomer, not only for his distinguished learning, but also for his exemplary piety, and granted a pension to his son Vincenzio, which was afterwards transferred to himself, and paid, with some irregularities, to the end of his life. But on the subject of the decree of 1616, the revocation of which Galileo had hoped to obtain through his personal influence, he found him inexorable. Yet there seemed reason to expect that it would at least be interpreted in a liberal spirit, and Galileo’s friends encouraged his imprudent confidence by eagerly retailing to him every papal utterance which it was possible to construe in a favourable sense. To Cardinal Hohenzollern, Urban was reported to have said that the theory of the earth’s motion had not been and could not be condemned as heretical, but only as rash; and in 1630 the brilliant Dominican monk Tommaso Campanella wrote to Galileo that the pope had expressed to him in conversation his disapproval of the prohibitory decree. Thus, in the full anticipation of added renown, and without any misgiving as to ulterior consequences, Galileo set himself, on his return to Florence, to complete his famous but ill-starred work, the Dialogo dei due massimi sistemi del mondo. Finished in 1630, it was not until January 1632 that it emerged from the presses of Landini at Florence. The book was originally intended to appear in Rome, but unexpected obstacles interposed. The Lincean Academy collapsed with the death of Prince Federigo Cesi, its founder and president; an outbreak of plague impeded communication between the various Italian cities; and the imprimatur was finally extorted, rather than accorded, under the pressure of private friendship and powerful interest. A tumult of applause from every part of Europe followed its publication; and it would be difficult to find in any language a book in which animation and elegance of style are so happily combined with strength and clearness of scientific exposition. Three interlocutors, named respectively Salviati, Sagredo, and Simplicio, take part in the four dialogues of which the work is composed. The first-named expounds the views of the author; the second is an eager and intelligent listener; the third represents a well-meaning but obtuse Peripatetic, whom the others treat at times with undisguised contempt. Salviati and Sagredo took their names from two of Galileo’s early friends, the former a learned Florentine, the latter a distinguished Venetian gentleman; Simplicio ostensibly derived his from the Cilician commentator of Aristotle, but the choice was doubtless instigated by a sarcastic regard to the double meaning of the word. There were not wanting those who insinuated that Galileo intended to depict the pope himself in the guise of the simpleton of the party; and the charge, though preposterous in itself, was supported by certain imprudences of expression, which Urban was not permitted to ignore.
It was at once evident that the whole tenor of this remarkable work was in flagrant contradiction with the edict passed sixteen years before its publication, as well as with the author’s personal pledge of conformity to it. The ironical submission with which it opened, and the assumed indetermination with which it closed, were hardly intended to mask the vigorous assertion of Copernican principles which formed its substance. It is a singular circumstance, however, that the argument upon which Galileo mainly relied as furnishing a physical demonstration of the truth of the new theory rested on a misconception. The ebb and flow of the tides were, he asserted, a visible proof of the terrestrial double movement, since they resulted from inequalities in the absolute velocities through space of the various parts of the earth’s surface, due to its rotation. To this notion, which took its rise in a confusion of thought, he attached capital importance, and he treated with scorn Kepler’s suggestion that a certain occult attraction of the moon was in some way concerned in the phenomenon. The theological censures which the book did not fail to incur were not slow in making themselves felt. Towards the end of August the sale was prohibited; on the 1st of October the author was cited to Rome by the Inquisition. He pleaded his age, now close upon seventy years, his infirm health, and the obstacles to travel caused by quarantine regulations; but the pope was sternly indignant at what he held to be his ingratitude and insubordination, and no excuse was admitted. At length, on the 13th of February 1633, he arrived at the residence of Niccolini, the Tuscan ambassador to the pontifical court, and there abode in retirement for two months. From the 12th to the 30th of April he was detained in the palace of the Inquisition, where he occupied the best apartments and was treated with unexampled indulgence. On the 30th he was restored to the hospitality of Niccolini, his warm partisan. The accusation against him was that he had written in contravention of the decree of 1616, and in defiance of the command of the Holy Office communicated to him by Cardinal Bellarmin; and his defence consisted mainly in a disavowal of his opinions, and an appeal to his good intentions. On the 21st of June he was finally examined under menace of torture; but he continued to maintain his assertion that after its condemnation by the Congregation of the Index, he had never held the Copernican theory. Since the publication of the documents relating to this memorable trial, there can no longer be any doubt, not only that the threat of torture was not carried into execution, but that it was never intended that it should be. On the 22nd of June, in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Galileo read his recantation, and received his sentence. He was condemned, as “vehemently suspected of heresy,” to incarceration at the pleasure of the tribunal, and by way of penance was enjoined to recite once a week for three years the seven penitential psalms. This sentence was signed by seven cardinals, but did not receive the customary papal ratification. The legend according to which Galileo, rising from his knees after repeating the formula of abjuration, stamped on the ground, and exclaimed, “Eppur si muove!” is, as may readily be supposed, entirely apocryphal. Its earliest ascertained appearance is in the Abbé Irailh’s Querelles littéraires (vol. iii. p. 49, 1761).
Galileo remained in the custody of the Inquisition from the 21st to the 24th of June, on which day he was relegated to the Villa Medici on the Trinità de’ Monti. Thence, on the 6th of July, he was permitted to depart for Siena, where he spent several months in the house of the archbishop, Ascanio Piccolomini, one of his numerous and trusty friends. It was not until December that his earnest desire of returning to Florence was realized, and the remaining eight years of his life were spent in his villa at Arcetri called “Il Giojello,” in the strict seclusion which was the prescribed condition of his comparative freedom. Domestic afflictions combined with numerous and painful infirmities to embitter his old age. His sister-in-law and her whole family, who came to live with him on his return from Rome, perished shortly afterwards of the plague; and on the 2nd of April 1634 died, to the inexpressible grief of her father, his eldest and best-beloved daughter, a nun in the convent of San Matteo at Arcetri. Galileo was never married; but by a Venetian woman named Marina Gamba he had three children—a son who married and left descendants, and two daughters who took the veil at an early age. His prodigious mental activity continued undiminished to the last. In 1636 he completed his Dialoghi delle nuove scienze, in which he recapitulated the results of his early experiments and mature meditations on the principles of mechanics. This in many respects his most valuable work was printed by the Elzevirs at Leiden in 1638, and excited admiration equally universal and more lasting than that accorded to his astronomical treatises. His last telescopic discovery—that of the moon’s diurnal and monthly librations—was made in 1637, only a few months before his eyes were for ever closed in hopeless blindness. It was in this condition that Milton found him when he visited him at Arcetri in 1638. But the fire of his genius was not even yet extinct. He continued his scientific correspondence with unbroken interest and undiminished logical acumen; he thought out the application of the pendulum to the regulation of clockwork, which Huygens successfully realized fifteen years later; and he was engaged in dictating to his disciples, Viviani and Torricelli, his latest ideas on the theory of impact when he was seized with the slow fever which in two months brought him to the grave. On the 8th of January 1642 he closed his long life of triumph and humiliation, which just spanned the interval between the death of Michelangelo and the birth of Isaac Newton.
The direct services which Galileo rendered to astronomy are virtually summed up in his telescopic discoveries. To the theoretical perfection of the science he contributed little or nothing. He pointed out indeed that the so-called “third motion,” introduced by Copernicus to account for the constant parallelism of the earth’s axis, was a superfluous complication. But he substituted the equally unnecessary hypothesis of a magnetic attraction, and failed to perceive that the phenomenon to be explained was, in relation to absolute space, not a movement but the absence of movement. The circumstance, however, which most seriously detracts from his scientific reputation is his neglect of the discoveries made during his lifetime by the greatest of his contemporaries. Kepler’s first and second laws were published in 1609, and his third ten years later. By these momentous inductions the geometrical theory of the solar system was perfected, and a hitherto unimagined symmetry was perceived to regulate the mutual relations of its members. But by Galileo they were passed over in silence. In his Dialogo dei massimi sistemi, printed not less than thirteen years after the last of the three laws had been given to the world, the epicycles by which Copernicus, adhering to the ancient postulate of uniform circular motion, had endeavoured to reduce to theory the irregularities of the planetary movements, were neither expressly adopted nor expressly rejected; and the conclusion seems inevitable that this grave defection from the cause of progress was due to his perhaps unconscious reluctance to accept discoveries which he had not originated. His name is nevertheless justly associated with that vast extension of the bounds of the visible universe which has rendered modern astronomy the most sublime of sciences, and his telescopic observations are a standing monument to his sagacity and acumen.
With the sure instinct of genius, he seized the characteristic features of the phenomena presented to his attention, and his inferences, except when distorted by polemical exigencies, have been strikingly confirmed by modern investigations. Of his two capital errors, regarding respectively the theory of the tides and the nature of comets, the first was insidiously recommended to him by his passionate desire to find a physical confirmation of the earth’s double motion; the second was adopted for the purpose of rebutting an anti-Copernican argument founded on the planetary analogies of those erratic subjects of the sun. Within two years of their first discovery, he had constructed approximately accurate tables of the revolutions of Jupiter’s satellites, and he proposed their frequent eclipses as a means of determining longitudes, not only on land, but at sea. This method, on which he laid great stress, and for the facilitation of which he invented a binocular glass, and devised some skilful mechanical contrivances, was offered by him in 1616 to the Spanish government, and afterwards to that of Tuscany, but in each case unsuccessfully; and the close of his life was occupied with prolonged but fruitless negotiations on the same subject with the states-general of Holland. The idea, though ingenious, has been found of little practical utility at sea.
A series of careful observations made him acquainted with the principal appearances revealed by modern instruments in the solar spots. He pointed out that they were limited to a certain defined zone on the sun’s surface; he noted the faculae with which they are associated, the penumbra by which they are bordered, their slight proper motions and their rapid changes of form. He inferred from the regularity of their general movements the rotation of the sun on its axis in a period of little less than a month; and he grounded on the varying nature of the paths seemingly traversed by them a plausible, though inconclusive, argument in favour of the earth’s annual revolution. Twice in the year, he observed, they seem to travel across the solar disk in straight lines; at other times, in curves. These appearances he referred with great acuteness to the slight inclination of the sun’s axis of rotation to the plane of the ecliptic. Thus, when the earth finds herself in the plane of the sun’s equator, which occurs at two opposite points of her orbit, the spots, travelling in circles parallel with that plane, necessarily appear to describe right lines; but when the earth is above or below the equatorial level, the paths of the spots open out into curves turned downwards or upwards, according to the direction in which they are seen. But the explanation of this phenomenon is equally consistent with the geocentric as with the heliocentric theory of the solar system. The idea of a universal force of gravitation seems to have hovered on the borders of this great man’s mind, without ever fully entering it. He perceived the analogy between the power which holds the moon in the neighbourhood of the earth, and compels Jupiter’s satellites to circulate round their primary, and the attraction exercised by the earth on bodies at its surface; but he failed to conceive the combination of central force with tangential velocity, and was disposed to connect the revolutions of the planets with the axial rotation of the sun. This notion, it is plain, tended rather towards Descartes’s theory of vortices than towards Newton’s theory of gravitation. More valid instances of the anticipation of modern discoveries may be found in his prevision that a small annual parallax would eventually be found for some of the fixed stars, and that extra-Saturnian planets would at some future time be ascertained to exist, and in his conviction that light travels with a measurable, although, in relation to terrestrial distances, infinite velocity.
The invention of the microscope, attributed to Galileo by his first biographer, Vincenzio Viviani, does not in truth belong to him. Such an instrument was made as early as 1590 by Zacharias Jansen of Middleburg; and although Galileo discovered, in 1610, a means of adapting his telescope to the examination of minute objects, he did not become acquainted with the compound microscope until 1624 when he saw one of Drebbel’s instruments in Rome, and, with characteristic ingenuity, immediately introduced some material improvements into its construction.
The most substantial, if not the most brilliant part of his work consisted undoubtedly in his contributions towards the establishment of mechanics as a science. Some valuable but isolated facts and theorems had been previously discovered and proved, but it was he who first clearly grasped the idea of force as a mechanical agent, and extended to the external world the conception of the invariability of the relation between cause and effect. From the time of Archimedes there had existed a science of equilibrium, but the science of motion began with Galileo. It is not too much to say that the final triumph of the Copernican system was due in larger measure to his labours in this department than to his direct arguments in its favour. The problem of the heavens is essentially a mechanical one; and without the mechanical conceptions of the dependence of motion upon force which Galileo familiarized to men’s minds, that problem might have remained a sealed book even to the intelligence of Newton. The interdependence of motion and force was not indeed formulated into definite laws by Galileo, but his writings on dynamics are everywhere suggestive of those laws, and his solutions of dynamical problems involve their recognition. The extraordinary advances made by him in this branch of knowledge were owing to his happy method of applying mathematical analysis to physical problems. As a pure mathematician he was, it is true, surpassed in profundity by more than one among his pupils and contemporaries; and in the wider imaginative grasp of abstract geometrical principles he cannot be compared with Fermat, Descartes or Pascal, to say nothing of Newton or Leibnitz. Still, even in the region of pure mathematics, his powerful and original mind left notable traces of its working. He studied the properties of the cycloid, and attempted the problem of its quadrature; and in the “infinitesimals,” which he was one of the first to introduce into geometrical demonstrations, was contained the fruitful germ of the differential calculus. But the method which was peculiarly his, and which still forms the open road to discoveries in natural science, consisted in the combination of experiment with calculation—in the transformation of the concrete into the abstract, and the assiduous comparison of results. The first-fruits of the new system of investigation was his determination of the laws of falling bodies. Conceiving that the simplest principle is the most likely to be true, he assumed as a postulate that bodies falling freely towards the earth descend with a uniformly accelerated motion, and deduced thence that the velocities acquired are in the direct, and the spaces traversed in the duplicate ratio of the times, counted from the beginning of motion; finally, he proved, by observing the times of descent of bodies falling down inclined planes, that the postulated law was the true law. Even here, he was obliged to take for granted that the velocities acquired in descending from the same height along planes of every inclination are equal; and it was not until shortly before his death that he found the mathematical demonstration of this not very obvious principle.
The first law of motion—that which expresses the principle of inertia—is virtually contained in the idea of uniformly accelerated velocity. The recognition of the second—that of the independence of different motions—must be added to form the true theory of projectiles. This was due to Galileo. Up to his time it was universally held in the schools that the motion of a body should cease with the impulse communicated to it, but for the “reaction of the medium” helping it forward. Galileo showed, on the contrary, that the nature of motion once impressed is to continue indefinitely in a uniform direction, and that the effect of the medium is a retarding, not an impelling one. Another commonly received axiom was that no body could be affected by more than one movement at one time, and it was thus supposed that a cannon ball, or other projectile, moves forward in a right line until its first impulse is exhausted, when it falls vertically to the ground. In the fourth of Galileo’s dialogues on mechanics, he demonstrated that the path described by a projectile, being the result of the combination of a uniform transverse motion with a uniformly accelerated vertical motion, must, apart from the resistance of the air, be a parabola. The establishment of the principle of the composition of motions formed a conclusive answer to the most formidable of the arguments used against the rotation of the earth, and we find it accordingly triumphantly brought forward by Galileo in the second of his dialogues on the systems of the world. It was urged by anti-Copernicans that a body flung upward or cast downward would, if the earth were in motion, be left behind by the rapid translation of the point from which it started; Galileo proved on the contrary that the reception of a fresh impulse in no way interfered with the movement already impressed, and that the rotation of the earth was insensible, because shared equally by all bodies at its surface. His theory of the inclined plane, combined with his satisfactory definition of “momentum,” led him towards the third law of motion. We find Newton’s theorem, that “action and reaction are equal and opposite,” stated with approximate precision in his treatise Della scienza meccanica, which contains the substance of lectures delivered during his professorship at Padua; and the same principle is involved in the axiom enunciated in the third of his mechanical dialogues, that “the propensity of a body to fall is equal to the least resistance which suffices to support it.” The problems of percussion, however, received no definitive solution until after his death.
His services were as conspicuous in the statical as in the kinetical division of mechanics. He gave the first satisfactory demonstration of equilibrium on an inclined plane, reducing it to the level by a sound and ingenious train of reasoning; while, by establishing the theory of “virtual velocities,” he laid down the fundamental principle which, in the opinion of Lagrange, contains the general expression of the laws of equilibrium. He studied with attention the still obscure subject of molecular cohesion, and little has been added to what he ascertained on the question of transverse strains and the strength of beams, first brought by him within the scope of mechanical theory. In his Discorso intorno alle cose che stanno su l’acqua, published in 1612, he used the principle of virtual velocities to demonstrate the more important theorems of hydrostatics, deducing from it the equilibrium of fluid in a siphon, and proved against the Aristotelians that the floating of solid bodies in a liquid depends not upon their form, but upon their specific gravities relative to such liquid.
In order to form an adequate estimate of the stride made by Galileo in natural philosophy, it would be necessary to enumerate the confused and erroneous opinions prevailing on all such subjects in his time. His best eulogium, it has been truly said, consists in the fallacies which he exposed. The scholastic distinctions between corruptible and incorruptible substances, between absolute gravity and absolute levity, between natural and violent motions, if they did not wholly disappear from scientific phraseology, ceased thenceforward to hold the place of honour in the controversies of the learned. Discarding these obscure and misleading notions, Galileo taught that gravity and levity are relative terms, and that all bodies are heavy, even those which, like the air, are invisible; that motion is the result of force, instantaneous or continuous; that weight is a continuous force, attracting towards the centre of the earth; that, in a vacuum, all bodies would fall with equal velocities; that the “inertia of matter” implies the continuance of motion, as well as the permanence of rest; and that the substance of the heavenly bodies is equally “corruptible” with that of the earth. These simple elementary ideas were eminently capable of development and investigation, and were not only true but the prelude to further truth; while those they superseded defied inquiry by their vagueness and obscurity. Galileo was a man born in due time. He was superior to his contemporaries, but not isolated amongst them. He represented and intensified a growing tendency of the age in which he lived. It was beginning to be suspected that from Aristotle an appeal lay to nature, and some were found who no longer treated the ipse dixit of the Stagirite as the final authority in matters of science. A vigorous but ineffectual warfare had already been waged against the blind traditions of the schools by Ramus and Telesius, by Patricius and Campanella, and the revolution which Galileo completed had been prepared by his predecessors. Nevertheless, the task which he so effectually accomplished demanded the highest and rarest quality of genius. He struck out for himself the happy middle path between the a priori and the empirical systems, and exemplified with brilliant success the method by which experimental science has wrested from nature so many of her secrets. His mind was eminently practical. He concerned himself above all with what fell within the range of exact inquiry, and left to others the larger but less fruitful speculations which can never be brought to the direct test of experiment. Thus, while far-reaching but hasty generalizations have had their day and been forgotten, his work has proved permanent, because he made sure of its foundations. His keen intuition of truth, his vigour and yet sobriety of argument, his fertility of illustration and acuteness of sarcasm, made him irresistible to his antagonists; and the evanescent triumphs of scornful controversy have given place to the sedate applause of a long-lived posterity.
The first complete edition of Galileo’s writings was published at Florence (1842–1856), in 16 8vo vols., under the supervision of Signor Eugenio Albèri. Besides the works already enumerated, it contained the Sermones de motu gravium composed at Pisa between 1589 and 1591; his letters to his friends, with many of their replies, as well as several of the essays of his scientific opponents; his laudatory comments on the Orlando Furioso, and depreciatory notes on the Gerusalemme Liberata, some stanzas and sonnets of no great merit, together with the sketch of a comedy; finally, a reprint of Viviani’s Life, with valuable notes and corrections. The original documents from the archives of the Inquisition, relating to the events of 1616 and 1633, recovered from Paris in 1846 by the efforts of Count Rossi, and now in the Vatican Library, were to a limited extent made public by Monsignor Marino-Marini in 1850, and more unreservedly by M. Henri de l’Épinois, in an essay entitled Galilée, son procès, sa condemnation, published in 1867 in the Revue des questions historiques. He was followed by M. Karl von Gebler, who, in an able and exhaustive but somewhat prejudiced work, Galileo Galilei und die römische Curie (Stuttgart, 1876), sought to impeach the authenticity of a document of prime importance in the trial of 1633. He was victoriously answered by Signor Domenico Berti, in Il Processo originale di Galileo Galilei (Rome, 1876), and by M. de l’Épinois, with Les pièces du procès de Galilée (Rome, Paris, 1877). The touching letters of Galileo’s eldest daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, to her father were printed in 1864 by Professor Carlo Arduini, in a publication entitled La Primogenita di Galileo Galilei.The issue of a “national edition” of the Works of Galileo, in 20 large volumes, was begun at Florence in 1890. It includes a mass of previously inedited correspondence and other documents, collected by the indefatigable director, Professor Antonio Favaro, among whose numerous publications on Galilean subjects may be mentioned: Galileo e lo studio di Padova (2 vols., 1883); Scampoli Galileani (12 series, 1886–1897); Nuovi Studii Galileani (1891); Galileo Galilei e Suor Maria Celeste (1891). See also Th. Henri Martin’s Galilée, les droits de la science et la méthode des sciences physiques (1868); Private Life of Galileo (by Mrs Olney, 1870); J.J. Fahie’s Galileo; his Life and Work (1903); Galilée et Marius, by J.A.C. Oudemans and J. Bosscha (1903). The relations of Galileo to the Church are temperately and ably discussed by F.R. Wegg-Prosser in Galileo and his Judges (1889), and in two articles published in the American Catholic Quarterly for April and July 1901. (A. M. C.)
- The word telescope, from τῆλε, far, σκοπεῖν, to view, was invented by Demiscianus, an eminent Greek scholar, at the request of Prince Cesi, president of the Lyncean Academy. It was used by Galileo as early as 1612, but was not introduced into England until much later. In 1655 the word telescope was inserted and explained in Bagwell’s Mysteries of Astronomy, trunk or cylinder being the terms until then ordinarily employed.
- Leonardo da Vinci, more than a hundred years earlier, had come to the same conclusion.
- The passage is sufficiently remarkable to deserve quotation in the original:—“Le parti della Terra hanno tal propensione al centro di essa, che quando ella cangiasse luogo, le dette parti, benchè lontane dal globo nel tempo delle mutazioni di esso, lo seguirebbero per tutto; esempio di ciò sia il seguito perpetuo delle Medicee, ancorchè separate continuamente da Giove. L’istesso si deve dire della Luna, obbligata a seguir la Terra.”—Dialogo dei massimi sistemi, Giornata terza, p. 351 of Albèri’s edition.