Who Was Galileo? - Contributions, History & Accomplishments

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  • 0:01 Who Was Galileo?
  • 1:53 Motion of Everyday Things
  • 4:03 Studies of Astronomy…
  • 5:05 Consequences
  • 5:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Learn what makes Galileo's life and work such an important part of the development of the modern scientific approach. Find out what concepts he developed regarding the motion of objects, and read about what he observed with a telescope.

Who Was Galileo?

When you think of science, you probably think about experiments - doing physical tests to determine how things in our world work. This scientific method only began to take shape during the 1500s and 1600s during what is called the Scientific Revolution. This was a time in which the views of the Roman Catholic Church and European society were rapidly changing. Galileo Galilei was a key individual during the Scientific Revolution, although the Church and society were not always in agreement with him.

A great part of Galileo's work was challenging the ideas of Aristotle, including his theory about falling objects and his theory that the sun revolves around Earth. During Galileo's life, Aristotle's theory was challenged by Nicolaus Copernicus, who said that Earth revolves around the Sun, and Galileo helped refute Aristotle's theories and support Copernicus.

But before we examine these theories, let's take a step back to the beginning. Galileo was born on February 15, 1564, in Pisa, Italy. When he was between seven and ten years old, his family moved to Florence, Italy. His intellectual talents were recognized early by his family, and because of this, when he entered the University of Pisa in 1581, his father wanted him to study medicine. However, he ultimately gave up on pursuing medicine and fully turned his attention to mathematics.

He eventually held positions as a professor of mathematics at the Universities of Pisa and then Padua. Later, he landed a more prestigious job as a Court Philosopher and Mathematician to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, a member of the famous Medici family.

Motion of Everyday Things

Now that we know a little bit about his life, let's look at Galileo's contributions to science. Galileo called Aristotle's ideas about physics into question. According to Aristotle, an object with more heaviness will fall to Earth faster than one with less heaviness.

As an obvious example, if a beach ball and a bowling ball are dropped from the same tower at the same time, the heavier bowling ball should hit the ground much earlier. In our own real-world experience this seems to make sense, but it gets a little bit tougher when we think of a less extreme example--like how long it would take a marble and a baseball to hit the ground?

In the end, Galileo concluded that it was only air resistance that caused a lighter object, like a beach ball, to take longer to fall than the heavier bowling ball. If there was no air to interfere, both objects would fall at the same rate. Galileo was able to demonstrate this principle by doing experiments with cannonballs of different weights, showing that, when dropped from the same height, they reached the ground at the same time.

Galileo also figured out how fast objects accelerated when falling by putting differently-sized balls on inclined planes, or ramps. Since it took longer for the balls to roll down the ramp than just to fall through the air, he could more easily measure the time that their 'fall' took.

Earlier Greek philosophers had said that objects moved until they reached their natural place, then they stopped. However, this did not sound sufficient to Galileo. Instead, he noticed that some objects kept moving even as nothing was actually pushing them. This observation that an object will keep doing whatever it was doing before until another force acts on it is called inertia and is central to modern physics.

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