Galileo Galilei was an outstanding mathematician, astronomer and natural philosopher, having greatly contributed to science and in particular to the development of the Copernican heliocentric model. He played a major role in the scientific revolution and Albert Einstein called him the ‘father of modern science’. His contributions to our understanding of the universe were significant not only in his discoveries, but in the methods he developed and the use of mathematics to prove them.
He was a very well known and respected scientist in his day and close friends with Pope Urban VIII. The Pope had extensive philosophical discussions with him, but in the end sacrificed his friendship with Galileo to save his own position.
Galileo was born in Pisa, Italy in 1564. His father, Vincenzo Galilei, was a well-known musician, composer and music theorist in the tradition of Pythagoras. His father may be accredited with having laid the foundation for Galileo’s approach to mathematics and his openness for experimentation and observation. In fact, Galileo developed a strong connection to the Pythagorean teachings himself, and it is suggested by Blavatsky in Isis Unveiled[i], as well as confirmed in The Mahatma Letters[ii] written between A.P. Sinnett and Koot Hoomi during the 19th century, that he may have been in possession of an original Pythagorean manuscript, from which some of his mathematical and astronomical theories were derived.
'Philosophy is written in that very large book that is continually opened before our eyes (I mean the universe), but which is not understood unless first one studies the language and knows the characters in which it is written. The language of that book is mathematical and the characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures.'The Assayer, 1623 by Galileo Galilei
Galileo initially studied medicine at the University of Pisa, where he was introduced to the Aristotelian view of the world, the leading scientific approach of his time: he prepared himself to teach Aristotelian philosophy but soon abandoned the teachings after he began studies on motion, which he pursued steadily for the next two decades. In his manuscript tract De motu (‘On Motion’) he had taken an Archimedean approach, which made him unpopular with his colleagues as this opposed the Aristotelian views of the time. However, he was able to secure the chair of mathematics at the University of Pisa, where he taught from 1589 until 1592. After that he moved to Padua, where he taught at the university and later held a position at the court of the Medici family.
It was in 1609 that he heard of an instrument that had been invented by eyeglass makers in The Netherlands that could show distant things as though they were nearby. He quickly figured out the workings of the invention and built his own telescope, which he initially sold to Venetian merchants to make some money, who then used it to spot ships. He then advanced the technology and managed to build a telescope that could magnify twentyfold; he used this to observe the stars and also distributed it to many courts and clerics, who were equally fascinated by his observations.
Through his observations of the stars he found Venus had phases like the moon, which suggested that it rotated around the sun, thereby refuting the Aristotelian doctrine that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. He also discovered four moons revolving around Jupiter, which further convinced him of the Copernican heliocentric model. In 1613 he published his observations of sunspots, which again refuted Aristotelian doctrine that the sun was in some way ‘perfect’.
Whilst the Catholic Church was reluctant to interfere with science, it was ambivalent in its position and eventually in 1616, more than 70 years after its original publication, it put Copernicus’ book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres onto their index and declared it as heresy, with the threat of inquisition and torture to anyone who endorsed it. However, due to his very good standing in society and his close friendship with the Pope, Galileo remained untouched: although he was ordered to appear in front of the Inquisition, he escaped with a mere warning to treat the Copernican model as merely hypothetical.
Galileo however proceeded to write his book A Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic & Copernican, knowing that by doing so he was endangering his strong connection with the Pope and all of the comfort and security which that offered him. Regardless, he placed more value in the Truth, and in expressing it so that all of humanity might know it. Whilst at the time he still had the backing of the Pope, he knew his teaching could not be accepted within the Catholic community and that the Pope would therefore be forced to renounce their friendship to save his own position. Knowing what would happen, Galileo proceeded anyway; Truth to him was more important than his own physical and temporal comfort.
The book itself is a brilliant discussion between three people; one who supports Copernicus' heliocentric theory of the universe, one who argues against it, and one who is impartial. Though Galileo claimed the dialogues were neutral, they were clearly not, as the advocate of Aristotelian belief comes across as a simpleton, getting caught in his own arguments. However, it passed the censorship and was published in 1632… but only shortly thereafter Galileo was accused again of heresy and ordered before the Inquisition in Rome.
It is said that the Pope was furious about the fact that the Church, and by extension himself, was made to appear as a simpleton, but that was certainly not the primary reason for him to convict Galileo, whom he highly revered. What needs to be studied in this context is the fact that the Jesuits were in direct competition with Galileo, and their fierce jealousy directed towards him played a big role in the outcome of his life. Galileo writes in a letter to Kepler (another Renaissance mathematician, with similar standing to Galileo):
My dear Kepler, I wish that we might laugh at the remarkable stupidity of the common herd. What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times? Truly, just as the asp stops its ears, so do these philosophers shut their eyes to the light of truth.
The argument of the scholars Galileo refers to was that without the telescope the findings could not be proven, and that they could have just been inside the telescope and that the instrument therefore could not be trusted. Galileo at the time could not yet prove the exact mathematical formula of the telescope’s workings.
The Jesuits put a lot of pressure on the Pope to expunge the threat of scientific revolution in Rome posed by Galileo, threatening the Pope’s position which had already been weakened due to the Protestants gaining more and more ground in Europe; so, in an attempt to resume his authority amongst them, he called the scientist a second time in front of the Inquisition in Rome. This time, Galileo did not get away with a mere warning, but was accused of heresy with all the consequences that this entailed. The Pope wanted to take a stance and exert his authority, reassuring the devout that he was willing to put matters of the church before his friendship and personal love of Galileo and his teachings. Galileo was interrogated several times and whilst he was not imprisoned, he was very aware that torture and death were the inevitable consequence if he did not back down. Whether he was shown the torture instruments or not, Galileo did not withstand the threat to his life and to the great dismay of his students he recanted his writings and was put under house arrest, where he remained under close observation by the Roman Catholic Church for the rest of his life. It is reported that he suffered nightmares after this.
Galileo kept working up until his death in 1642. Even though he became blind in his later years he continued with his students and was able to contribute much to science. And whilst he did not at that time have the courage to stand firm for what he knew to be true, his spirit eventually being broken by the church, he paved the way for the Copernican model to become the accepted view of the world, and he is still revered for this today.
Ultimately, he was a true Pythagorean philosopher and mathematician, who brought through the teachings in Renaissance Europe in a time when to do so, one risked their own life. But he knew the Truth and the higher wisdom and connection to God that a true study of mathematics offered: “I say that as concerns the truth, of which mathematical demonstrations give us the knowledge, it is the same as that which the Divine wisdom knows.” (Dialogue of the Great World Systems)
It took the Roman Catholic Church 350 years (1992) to rectify the persecution of Galileo and address one of the many infamous wrongs to which they have subjected humanity.