15 Gripping Facts About Galileo

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Albert Einstein once said that the work of Galileo Galilei “marks the real beginning of physics.” And astronomy, too: Galileo was the first to aim a telescope at the night sky, and his discoveries changed our picture of the cosmos. Here are 15 things that you might not know about the father of modern science, who was born February 15, 1564.

1. There's a reason why Galileo Galilei's first name echoes his last name.

You may have noticed that Galileo Galilei’s given name is a virtual carbon-copy of his family name. In her book Galileo’s Daughter, Dava Sobel explains that in Galileo’s native Tuscany, it was customary to give the first-born son a Christian name based on the family name (in this case, Galilei). Over the years, the first name won out, and we’ve come to remember the scientist simply as “Galileo.”

2. Galileo Galilei probably never dropped anything off the leaning tower of Pisa. 

With its convenient “tilt,” the famous tower in Pisa, where Galileo spent the early part of his career, would have been the perfect place to test his theories of motion, and of falling bodies in particular. Did Galileo drop objects of different weights, to see which would strike the ground first? Unfortunately, we have only one written account of Galileo performing such an experiment, written many years later. Historians suspect that if Galileo taken part in such a grand spectacle, there would be more documentation. (However, physicist Steve Shore did perform the experiment at the tower in 2009; I videotaped it and put the results on YouTube.)

3. Galileo taught his students how to cast horoscopes.

It’s awkward to think of the father of modern science mucking about with astrology. But we should keep two things in mind: First, as historians remind us, it’s problematic to judge past events by today’s standards. We know that astrology is bunk, but in Galileo’s time, astrology was only just beginning to disentangle from astronomy. Besides, Galileo wasn’t rich: A professor who could teach astrological methods would be in greater demand than one who couldn’t.

4. Galileo didn't like being told what to do.

Maybe you already knew that, based on his eventual kerfuffle with the Roman Catholic Church. But even as a young professor at the University of Pisa, Galileo had a reputation for rocking the boat. The university’s rules demanded that he wear his formal robes at all times. He refused—he thought it was pretentious and considered the bulky gown a nuisance. So the university docked his pay.

5. Galileo Galilei didn't invent the telescope.

We’re not sure who did, although a Dutch spectacle-maker named Hans Lipperhey often gets the credit (he applied for a patent in the fall of 1608). Within a year, Galileo Galilei obtained one of these Dutch instruments and quickly improved the design. Soon, he had a telescope that could magnify 20 or even 30 times. As historian of science Owen Gingerich has put it, Galileo had managed “to turn a popular carnival toy into a scientific instrument.”

6. A king leaned on Galileo to name planets after him.

Galileo rose to fame in 1610 after discovering, among other things, that the planet Jupiter is accompanied by four little moons, never previously observed (and invisible without telescopic aid). Galileo dubbed them the “Medicean stars” after his patron, Cosimo II of the Medici family, who ruled over Tuscany. The news spread quickly; soon the king of France was asking Galileo if he might discover some more worlds and name them after him.

7. Galileo didn't have trouble with the church for the first two-thirds of his life.

In fact, the Vatican was keen on acquiring astronomical knowledge, because such data was vital for working out the dates of Easter and other holidays. In 1611, when Galileo visited Rome to show off his telescope to the Jesuit astronomers there, he was welcomed with open arms. The future Pope Urban VIII had one of Galileo’s essays read to him over dinner and even wrote a poem in praise of the scientist. It was only later, when a few disgruntled conservative professors began to speak out against Galileo, that things started to go downhill. It got even worse in 1616, when the Vatican officially denounced the heliocentric (sun-centered) system described by Copernicus, which all of Galileo’s observations seemed to support. And yet, the problem wasn’t Copernicanism. More vexing was the notion of a moving Earth, which seemed to contradict certain verses in the Bible.

8. Galileo probably could have earned a living as an artist.

We think of Galileo as a scientist, but his interests—and talents—straddled several disciplines. Galileo could draw and paint as well as many of his countrymen and was a master of perspective—a skill that no doubt helped him interpret the sights revealed by his telescope. His drawings of the Moon are particularly striking. As the art professor Samuel Edgerton has put it, Galileo’s work shows “the deft brushstrokes of a practiced watercolorist”; his images have “an attractive, soft, and luminescent quality.” Edgerton writes of Galileo’s “almost impressionistic technique” more than 250 years before Impressionism developed.

10. Galileo wrote about relativity long before Einstein.

He didn’t write about exactly the same sort of relativity that Einstein did. But Galileo understood very clearly that motion is relative—that is, that your perception of motion has to do with your own movement as well as that of the object you’re looking at. In fact, if you were locked inside a windowless cabin on a ship, you’d have no way of knowing if the ship was motionless, or moving at a steady speed. More than 250 years later, these ideas would be fodder for the mind of the young Einstein.

10. Galileo never married, but that doesn't mean he was alone.

Galileo was very close with a beautiful woman from Venice named Marina Gamba; together, they had two daughters and a son. And yet, they never married, nor even shared a home. Why not? As Dava Sobel notes, it was traditional for scholars in those days to remain single; perceived class difference may also have played a role.

11. You can listen to music composed by Galileo's dad.

Galileo’s father, Vincenzo, was a professional musician and music teacher. Several of his compositions have survived, and you can find modern recordings of them on CD (like this one). The young Galileo learned to play the lute by his father’s side; in time he became an accomplished musician in his own right. His music sense may have aided in his scientific work. With no precision clocks, Galileo was still able to time rolling and falling objects to within mere fractions of a second.

12. His discoveries may have influenced a scene in one of Shakespeare's late plays.

An amusing point of trivia is that Galileo and Shakespeare were born in the same year (1564). By the time Galileo aimed his telescope at the night sky, however, the English playwright was nearing the end of his career. But he wasn’t quite ready to put down the quill: His late play Cymbeline contains what may be an allusion to one of Galileo’s greatest discoveries—the four moons circling Jupiter. In the play’s final act, the god Jupiter descends from the heavens, and four ghosts dance around him in a circle. It could be a coincidence—or, as I suggest in my book The Science of Shakespeare, it could hint at the Bard's awareness of one of the great scientific discoveries of the time.

13. Galileo had some big-name visitors while under house arrest.

Charged with “vehement suspicion of heresy,” Galileo spent the final eight years of his life under house arrest in his villa outside of Florence. But he was able to keep writing and, apparently, to receive visitors, among them two famous Englishmen: the poet John Milton and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

14. Galileo's bones have not rested in peace.

When Galileo died in 1642, the Vatican refused to allow his remains to be buried alongside family members in Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica; instead, his bones were relegated to a side chapel. A century later, however, his reputation had improved, and his remains (minus a few fingers) were transferred to their present location, beneath a grand tomb in the basilica’s main chapel. Michelangelo is nearby.

15. Galileo might not have been thrilled with the Vatican's 1992 "apology."

In 1992, under Pope John Paul II, the Vatican issued an official statement admitting that it was wrong to have persecuted Galileo. But the statement seemed to place most of the blame on the clerks and theological advisers who worked on Galileo’s case—and not on Pope Urban VIII, who presided over the trial. Nor was the charge of heresy overturned.

Additional sources: The Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo; Galileo's Daughter; The Cambridge Companion to Galileo.

How Coronavirus and 31 Other Infectious Diseases and Viruses Got Their Names

Rotavirus—from the Latin rota, for "wheel"—is named for the wheel-like appearance of its particles.
Rotavirus—from the Latin rota, for "wheel"—is named for the wheel-like appearance of its particles.
Dr_Microbe/iStock via Getty Images

As you may already know, the corona in coronavirus has no relation to a certain refreshing beer often served with a slice of lime. Corōna means “crown” in Latin—and Spanish and Italian, too—and virologists chose it in 1968 to describe the group of viruses characterized by crown-like spikes that protrude from their surfaces.

So how do other viruses and diseases get their names? Based on the infographic below, created by Adam Aleksic for his website, The Etymology Nerd, there isn’t just one way. Some, like the coronavirus, are named for how they look under a microscope. The rota in rotavirus, for example, which means “wheel” in Latin, reflects the virus’s wheel-like appearance when viewed beneath an electron microscope.

Others are named after the locations where they were discovered or studied. In 1947, scientists named a newly identified mosquito-borne virus after Uganda’s Zika Forest. In 1977, Yale researchers investigating a string of pediatric arthritis cases in the town of Lyme, Connecticut, started referring to the illness as “Lyme arthritis.” Later, the name was modified to “Lyme disease” when scientists realized patients were exhibiting other symptoms, too.

Still others are characterized by the symptoms they cause. People with tetanus—from the Greek tetanos, for “tension”—usually experience muscle stiffness, and the skin of yellow fever sufferers often takes on a yellow tint due to jaundice.

Find out the origins of malaria, measles, and more below. And follow The Etymology Nerd on Instagram for more fascinating etymological explanations.

etymology nerd infectious disease names infographic
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of Latin in this infographic.

These 8 MasterClass Courses Will Get You Out of Your Netflix Funk

Chef Gordon Ramsay is just one of the professionals lending their knowledge to a MasterClass course.
Chef Gordon Ramsay is just one of the professionals lending their knowledge to a MasterClass course.
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Although binge-watching Netflix is always a great way to kill a few hours, you might want to shake it up and do something a little more substantial with your free time. That’s where MasterClass comes in. A subscription package that features over 80 virtual courses in a wide range of subjects, MasterClass can help you explore exciting new subjects or improve your knowledge in an area you’re already familiar with. And all the classes are taught by highly recognizable experts in their fields, so you can be confident that the lessons you’re learning are solid (that Martin Scorsese probably knows a thing or two about filmmaking, after all).

The courses themselves are broken up into individual lessons that are only around 10 minutes long, so fitting them into your schedule is as easy as becoming a professional chess player (or it will be, once you’ve finished the course). MasterClass is priced at $15 a month for unlimited classes or at $90 per course, and you can sign up here.

So whether you want to become the next great young adult novelist or an expert bartender, MasterClass has something for everyone. Check out a few highlights from the course list.

1. Cooking with Gordon Ramsay

Gordon Ramsay, known for his sharp demeanor and high expectations in the kitchen, is an international chef, restaurateur, and television host who’s nothing short of legendary. And in his MasterClass series, he’ll teach you to become a legend, too. This series features the softer side of Ramsay, who teaches you knife techniques, seasoning tricks, kitchen layout, and much more. And, for anyone ready to level up, he also offers Cooking II: Restaurant Recipes in the Kitchen.

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If you’re ready to become an award-winning bartender—or just make a decent martini at home—look no further than this 17-lesson course with master mixologists Lynnette Marrero and Ryan Chetiyawardana. You’ll not only learn to craft the perfect cocktail, but also how to safely incorporate raw eggs into drinks, make complementary drink “seasonings,” and discover the best liquor to pair with food (who knew that whiskey and blue cheese were a match made in heaven?). A good drink has the power to bring people together, and after this course, you’ll be the go-to guru for any dinner party.

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After you’re through with R.L. Stine’s class on writing for young adults, you may just become the next sultan of the Scholastic Book Fair. According to his website, Stine has written over 330 books over the course of his career, and he’s provided thrills and chills to millions of readers with his beloved Goosebumps and Fear Street series. Now, he’ll teach you some of his favorite tricks of the trade, like why you should always start with the ending (so you can focus on fooling your reader for the entire book) and how writing from personal experience makes for a more sincere scare. This masterclass will help you perfect the art of scary storytelling and overcome any fears you might have about putting your own experiences on the page.

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4. Conservation with Dr. Jane Goodall

Dr. Jane Goodall is best known for her groundbreaking work with chimpanzees and gorillas, but she’s more than just a scientist—she’s an environmental activist and conservationist who wants to ensure that animal habitats are preserved for years to come. In this course, Dr. Goodall will share some of the conservation lessons she’s learned as a scientist, identify the central problems facing our planet today, and share effective methods for creating change. As she says, one of the best ways to confront environmental issues is by “telling stories, meeting with people, listening to them, and then finding a way to reach the heart.” This course will show you how.

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5. Chess with Garry Kasparov

Garry Kasparov, a chess grandmaster and world chess champion, will help you dust off your old chessboard and learn to play the game like it’s an art form. This 29-lesson class starts with the basics and gets more complex the further you get into the course. Using the tactics he’s curated throughout his career, Kasparov will show you how to approach chess with a strategist's mindset, including the basics of openings, interference plans, and endgames. This class even features other “students” so you’re not just studying the techniques, but seeing how they play out in real time, too.

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One of comedy’s greatest names—and one of film’s most beloved actors—is Steve Martin. The star of film classics such as Father of the Bride and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Martin will teach you how to find your comedic voice, develop your persona, and work a crowd so that you’ll never get booed off the stage. And he’ll share his comedic process, which involves more writing and editing than it does practicing in the mirror. This is the perfect class for anyone looking to practice their improv skills or sign up for their first open mic night.

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Make your childhood dreams come true with this course from retired astronaut Chris Hadfield, who’s flown two Space Shuttle missions and served as commander of the International Space Station during his 21 years as an astronaut. And in his course, he’ll teach you the intricacies of space exploration, from learning how rockets work to preparing your body for liftoff. Even if you're not planning on leaving the atmosphere (or your couch) anytime soon, this class teaches you what it's like to be an astronaut. And as Hadfield talks about his unique journey to the stars, there's the chance to learn plenty of life and career lessons that you can apply on Earth.

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Even if your biggest adventure is going on a walk in your local park, award-winning adventure photographer Jimmy Chin (the face behind documentaries such as Free Solo and Meru) will still teach you how to turn your photographs into works of art. Chin’s class acts as part photography course and part adventure guide, teaching you every step from choosing the right location to editing the final product. You’ll learn how to plan shoots, pack the right gear, and even find clients if you want to go professional. Whether you want to make photography a career or just take the perfect photo of your dog at golden hour, this masterclass will get you feeling comfortable behind the camera and bring some more adventure into your everyday life.

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