“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” – Sir Isaac Newton
Young STEMists can learn much from the life of Galileo. Like all good STEMists, he studied the work of those who had gone before him. As he studied, he asked questions to test those ideas. Sometimes he found new, better explanations for the way things work. Every good STEMist learns from the past and tries to go further and do better.
Galileo: Groovy Ideas to Explain the Universe
Galileo Galilei was born in 1564 in Pisa, Italy. His father was a musician. Though the family was noble, they were not wealthy. In 1581, Galileo was sent to the University of Pisa to study medicine. While there, he was especially fascinated by the fields of mathematics and physics.
Galileo became a professor at the University of Pisa, where he taught from 1589 through 1592. He did research on the motion of falling objects. At that time, STEMists still believed the world operated the way Aristotle, a famous Greek philosopher, had described. They believed, for example, that the earth was the center of the universe and that heavier objects fell faster than lightweight objects. Galileo’s research, which he published in a book, On Motion, showed that all objects fall at the same rate in a vacuum. This was not what Aristotle had predicted.
After his time at the University of Pisa, Galileo taught geometry, mechanics, and astronomy at the University of Padua for eighteen years. During this time he began to support the theory of Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish astronomer who said the planets revolved around the sun.
We call this the heliocentric (sun-centered) view as opposed to Aristotle’s geocentric (earth-centered) view. Galileo made improvements to a Dutch telescope and was the first to use the telescope to make observations in astronomy. He saw that the moon, which people had thought was smooth, was actually covered in craters. He also observed that Jupiter had moons of its own–and those moons did not revolve around the earth.
He studied the motion of pendulums and came up with the idea of a pendulum clock. He also invented a water pump and made improvements to the refracting telescope, though he did not invent the telescope itself. Like many learned men of his day, Galileo was interested in many things and let his curiosity spur him to study problems until he came up with solutions.
Unfortunately, Galileo’s solutions were not popular with some powerful people in Italy. Pope Urban VIII did not approve of his Copernican ideas. The Catholic Church at that time had decided Aristotle’s ideas were correct. The Pope had Galileo found guilty of heresy (going against church teachings) and the STEMist spent the rest of his life under house arrest. In 1758 the Catholic Church at last lifted the ban on Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. The evidence by that time was clear–Galileo had been right all along to reject Aristotle’s view. In 1992 Pope John Paul II expressed regret at the way Galileo had been treated by the church.
Galileo’s life shows how ideas in STEM can change. Long ago, people came up with ideas (theories) that seemed to explain the motion of objects. Later, when people had equipment to take better measurements or to see more clearly, they found problems with the old theories and devised new ones that better explained what they observed. Remember we have never reached a point where we have learned everything for sure!