Galileo and His Rebellion

When we think of Galileo, we think of his inquisitorial process, his defiance, his “eppur si muove” after recanting the theories he had so staunchly defended…

Although a person may not be born rebellious, we are tempted to say that in the case of Galileo it was almost innate. His father was much to blame for the character development of the scientist, not only for his genes but most of all for providing him with a strong background in music, literature and, of course, science. Galileo was not so much a rebel as a restless thinker, ever open to the truth… with little tolerance for ignorance and the absence of arguments.

Born in Pisa in 1564, at age 21 he decided to withdraw from the university, feeling disenchanted with the education he was receiving: he felt it revolved too much around the Aristotelian doctrines, which were seldom questioned despite being nearly 20 centuries old. It was precisely during his university days that he earned his nickname: the Wrangler.

But not everything about Galileo boiled down to science and bad temperament: in 1588, after spending several years researching on his own, he was presented with the dream opportunity to have the stability necessary to continue his work. He was invited by the Academy of Florence to give a keynote lecture. He prepared his speech thoroughly, applying his breadth of knowledge in multiple disciplines (from literature to mathematics) to make a deep impression on the audience. He was given the long-awaited Mathematics Chair at the University of Pisa, a platform through which his voice would begin to be heard throughout Europe.

Interestingly, in his speech he exhibited tactfulness and subtlety whose absence, years later, would be his downfall. Because it is not wise to respond to unreason by shouting or being rude; the truth is presented in a mild-mannered way, not forcefully imposed (not even verbally).

Theories that Galileo would develop during his initial rise to fame focused on the subtle demonstration of the movement of the planets. Copernicus had formulated his theory some years before, but had been rejected by ecclesiastical and academic authorities. Galileo knew the situation well, and knew how to express his ideas with subtlety, convincing clergymen, academics and even the pope.

And during that period he would also get married and have three children. He developed an especially tight bond with his daughter Virginia, which was his sustenance and comfort for years. Virginia, who was ordained a nun at a very young age, would remain in affectionate correspondence with her father for many years.

In 1609, a scientific innovation is what led to Galileo’s work becoming known internationally: the telescope, in its most rudimentary version, which magnified the view by a factor of 9. Galileo quickly built his own, with 30x magnification—capable of showing the ruggedness of the moon’s surface.

It was perhaps this evidence, this beauty—which had forever been out of sight for humankind—that prompted Galileo to share his discovery. To defend theories for which he now had more than enough evidence. The Earth did not stand still—it revolved around the sun, just one of the stars in the vast universe that for the first time in history was being viewed by human eyes.

And it could have been this immensity, this disproportion between what he saw and what was his life, that led Galileo to leave the university, his job, everything, to devote himself body and soul to research and publicize his discoveries.

But one cannot be like Galileo without causing envy and animosity among many adversaries. Among them, an Aristotelian philosopher, who may have embodied the fear of change or destruction of the status quo: Ludovico delle Colombe. In him, as in the rest of his enemies, we can perceive the bitterness of envy and fear.

His adversaries were many things, but certainly not fools. They devised a ploy to take advantage of Galileo’s temperament and make him a slave to his own words. They eventually succeeded, getting the authorities to look suspiciously at all of Galileo’s work.

What happened next is well known: for fear of being burned at the stake, Galileo recanted all his theories and writings, recognizing before the tribunal of the Inquisition that they were heresies for which he asked for forgiveness. His life was spared, only to find the saddest news upon his return to Florence: his daughter, Virginia, the nun, had died.

It is sad to think about Galileo as an aging man, defeated and humiliated, without any support and without the soothing presence of his daughter. But his story did not end with this misfortune: up to the end of his life, for a few short years, Galileo managed to publish and disseminate new evidence in favor of the heliocentric theory as well as novel theories in other fields of mathematics and physics. The Wrangler was finally able to rest in peace, in 1642, not needing the recognition that would only come with the passage of centuries. And his story remains a clear example of the pros and cons of confronting ignorance so vehemently. In summary, we point to the following highlights in Galileo’s life:

  • Rebellion and prudence seldom go hand in hand… and few combinations of seeming opposites yield better results.
  • When battling the forces opposing change, it is better to be astute than engage in direct confrontation.
  • The most rebellious and intense man becomes a child before the tender affection of a daughter.
  • Cross-fertilization between closely related disciplines is a source of creativity. Galileo’s father did him a great favor by exposing him from an early age to such disparate knowledge.