Galileo: The persecuted man of science


In going through a profile of Galileo Galilei we come across another example where a great person is not fully appreciated by his own country or is persecuted.

It is also the story of what is or should be the relationship between science and religion.

Galileo was born on 15 February 1564 in the town of Pisa, Italy three days before the death of the 89-year-old Michelangelo, one of the pillars of the Italian Renaissance.


It was a period of the Reformation by Luther and Calvin and the Counter Reformation spearhead by Ignatius Loyola’s Society of Jesus or Jesuits.

After attending a monastery at Vallombrosa aged 17 years in 1581 he was admitted to the University of Pisa to study medicine. But this course did not interest him. He had intellectual acumen, but lacked social acumen. He despised his teachers, lecturers as incorrect.

He found life more convivial in tavern and bordellos. Perhaps it was no wonder that after four years he left the University of Pisa without a degree.


Finding a job was not easy for him. It was after several failures that an aristocratic patron called Guidobaldo managed to find Galileo the post of professor of mathematics at the University of Pisa despite the fact that he had failed his degree there. Galileo had continued with studies and scientific research after leaving college.

In 1592 his three-year contract at Pisa University came to an end .The university authorities decided not to renew Galileo’s contract. Both during his student days and his professorship he had been skeptical of the teaching of Aristotle which the Catholic Church believed to be absolutely correct.

Aristole, according to Ptolemy and St. Thomas Aquinas, had taught that when objects such as hailstones of different weights fell down from a height, they fall at different speeds. Galileo ascended the Learning Tower of Pisa from where he dropped objects of different sizes and weights.

The heaviest did not travel faster than the lighter ones. Through experiment Galileo proved Aristotle wrong.

In 1969 Neil Armstrong the American astronaut who first landed on the moon dropped a hammer and a feather.

They fell on the ground at the same time; Armstrong shouted “You see, Galileo was right.”

Galileo was an applied scientist. He constructed a pendulum device which could be used for determining a patient’s pulse. He showed his invention to the university medical department lecturers who were so impressed with his device that they stole his idea. The device called pulsilogium brought Galileo a certain amount of local fame and was used throughout Italy but Galileo got no financial benefit out of it.

He also invented a scale known as La balancietta (the little balance), an extremely delicate instrument involving the highest technical expertise. It earned him fame but not money.

He was in perpetual financial difficulties.

What brought Galileo greatest attention in the scientific world was his improvement to the telescope. The first inventor of the telescope had intended to use it solely for observing objects at a distance on the earth.

Having improved the telescope Galileo decided to use it for exploring the heavenly bodies.

Copernicus, a Polish priest had in the year 1543, published a theory that planets orbited round the sun not round the earth. The church was hostile to this for it contradicted the teaching of Aquinas and Aristotle that the universe was made up of the earth and heavens and that all other planets were circulating round the earth.

Galileo believed that Copernicus was right.

With the telescope pointing skywards he observed the heavenly bodies. His observation confirmed that it was the earth which was orbiting round the sun not the other way round.

In 1615 the Inquisition (Censorship Board) forbade Galileo to teach anywhere. He was under house arrest but he continued to research. One of his books was published in Holland.

In 1663 Galileo was brought to Rome for trial where he was forced to recant his scientific beliefs In his mea culpa he said interalia: “I, Galileo Galilei son of Vincenzo Galilea of Florence aged 70 years have been mpronounced by the Holy Office to be vehemently suspected of heresy.

That is to say, having held and believed that the sun is the centre of the world and immovable and that the earth is not the centre, with sincere heart and unfeigning faith I abjure, curb and detest the aforesaid errors and heresies.”

There is legend that he made his last defiance by whispering under his breath; “Eppursi

muova (but it still moves) meaning that he still believed that it was the earth which was moving, not the sun.

It shocked Galileo that even his friend Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, now Pope Urban VIII, had turned against him under the influence of the Jesuits. The consequence of the trial was that the next 100 years the growth of science in Catholic countries was heavily retarded.

However in 1833 Galileo’s book Dialogue was removed from the Catholic Church’s list of prohibited books and in 1979 Pope John Paul praised Galileo’s views on the relationship of science and religion and admitted that the church had made him suffer.

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