A Season of Reason

Welcome to Day 2 of the Season of Reason.  Today we are honoring the accomplishments of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) astronomer, scientist, and convicted heretic.

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Galileo’s Accomplishments

Galileo’s had many accomplishments that contributed to the advancement of science and technology.  The one that he is probably most famous for is the invention of the telescope.  To be fair, Galileo didn’t exactly ‘invent’ the telescope.  He took a children’s toy that magnified objects 3 times and improved its magnification ten times so he could look at the night sky.  Galileo was the first human being to see the moons of Jupiter.  In fact, four of Jupiter’s moons are still referred to as Galilean moons.  His observations of Jupiter’s moons as well as his observations of Earth’s moon using the telescope revolutionized the field of astronomy and provided data that proved the heliocentric (the earth orbits the sun) theory of the solar system.

Galileo’s conviction by the Inquisition

Galileo wrote a few noteworthy books that were famous during his lifetime.  His writings on heliocentrism caught the attention of the Roman Catholic Inquisition for being contrary to church teachings on the nature of the universe.  The Catholic Church held that the Bible and subsequent pronouncements from the church supported the Aristotelian view of geocentrism (the earth is the center of the universe).  Since Galileo was advancing the scientific theory of heliocentrism the Catholic Inquisition put him on trial for heresy.  Galileo was convicted of the charge of heresy and was forced to publicly recant his scientific findings and promised not to publish any more works in support of his theories.  In exchange for this, the Catholic Inquisition put Galileo on house arrest until his death in 1642.

The Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences

While on house arrest Galileo wrote Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences.  Since he was on house arrest and promised not to publish anything supporting his scientific theories he wrote it in secret.  The book was published after Galileo died and turned out to be extremely influential in the advancement of science.  In fact, Isaac Newton used the Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences as the basis for his discoveries in the fields of physics and astronomy.

Galileo’s Legacy

Galileo has been called the “father of modern science”, the “father of observational astronomy”, and the “father of modern physics”.  His work formed the foundation for Sir Isaac Newton’s discoveries in gravity.  Galileo’s willingness to conduct experiments to test his hypotheses was also something new in the area of science.  His willingness to use observation and experiments to prove or disprove his ideas were a glimpse into the scientific method we use today.  For that we should be eternally grateful because without questioning the assumptions before us, we would still be stuck in the dark ages.

How do I observe Galileo’s genius?  (Where is the fun part?)

Aristotle’s ideas on science had dominated western thought for over a thousand years by the time Galileo was born.  Which would have been fine if anyone had taken the time to test his ideas to see if they were right.  Galileo decided to see if Aristotle was right.

Legend has it that Galileo climbed the leaning tower of Pisa and dropped two metal balls of differing weight at the same time to see which would hit the ground first.  If Aristotle was right, the heavier ball would fall faster and hit the ground first.  We want you to recreate Galileo’s experiment to see of Aristotle was right.  Here is how you do it.

Take two objects that are of differing weight like a tennis ball and a basketball.  Drop them from the same height at the same time.  If you live near Pisa you can use the same tower that Galileo used.  If you don’t find someplace that has a balcony or a window where you can drop objects and observe their impact on the ground.  If you don’t have a safe place to do this, simply hold both objects above your head and drop them at the same time.

Note: Science is important!  Pushing the bounds of science is important as well.  If you are going to conduct any scientific experiment please do so safely.  There is no reason to injure yourself or others while you are discovering how the world works.  In this case, do NOT drop things onto people.  Science is about making the world a better place, not putting people into the hospital.

What happened?  Did the objects fall at the same rate?  Did the heavier ball hit the ground first?  Leave your findings in the comments, tweet them to @reasonsgreeting, or email them to info@newtonmas.net

Here are some links if you would like to know more about Galileo and his extraordinary life.

Galileo in less than 3 minutes


Everything you would ever want to know about Galileo