Happy 452nd Birthday, Galileo

The revolutionary who helped shape modern astronomy

Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

On February 15, 1564, a baby boy named Galileo Galilei was born in the city of Pisa. 452 years later, he remains one of the most important figures in the development of modern astronomy. Even after centuries, Galileo is still lauded as a man ahead of his time—a champion of the then-revolutionary concept that Earth was not the center of the universe, but instead orbited the sun.

While Galileo made his name as a scientist and engineer, he was raised with a heavy dose of humanities. He grew up reading books, learning how to draw, and even became an accomplished musician following in the footsteps of his father Vincenzo, who was a famous lute player and musical theorist.

It is possible that the future astronomer inherited a bit of his rebellious streak from Vincenzo. Galileo’s father often struggled against authority, even penning a book that criticized traditional tuning systems dating back to Ptolemaic times—an act reminiscent of how Galileo would eventually confront Ptolemaic astronomy, Adam Gopnik wrote for The New Yorker.

His beliefs might have been heresy at the time, but Galileo was very much a product of the Renaissance. As Gopnik wrote:

Part of Galileo’s genius was to transfer the spirit of the Italian Renaissance in the plastic arts to the mathematical and observational ones. He took the competitive, empirical drive with which Florentine painters had been looking at the world and used it to look at the night sky. The intellectual practices of doubting authority and trying out experiments happened on lutes and with tempera on gesso before they turned toward the stars.

When he was 18, his family moved to Florence, where Galileo began studying at a local monastery, which eventually lead him to study medicine at the University of Pisa. Seeking to become a university professor himself, Galileo studied advanced mathematics and physics. However, he never finished his degree: his family couldn’t afford to pay for more than a few years of university, and Galileo was forced to discontinue his studies, Daniela Breitman writes for EarthSky.org.

Galileo’s medical education ended when he left Pisa, but he continued delving into mathematics. He fought to publish his earliest scientific books while working as a teacher, taking all he learned and channeling that knowledge and drive towards examining the workings of the universe.

Before Galileo's pursuits of the night sky, astronomy wasn’t really that important in the sciences. Astronomers were mostly in charge of ensuring that calendars were correct and drawing up horoscopes, David Zax wrote for Smithsonian Magazine. But once Galileo began documenting the starry nights, astronomy was changed forever.

Unfortunately for Galileo, however, the small act of turning a telescope to the sky was seen as an act of rebellion against the church. He was relentlessly persecuted for his radical views, including marathon interrogations, threats of torture, and imprisonment. Though he eventually capitulated to the Inquisition’s demands and recanted his beliefs in public, Galileo championed scientific inquiry and objective evidence, earning him a place in the annals of history.