Galileo Galilei (1)

Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa, Italy on February 15, 1564. He was the first of 7 children. Although his father was a musician and wool trader, he wanted his clearly talented son to study medicine as there was more money in medicine. So, at age eleven, Galileo was sent off to study in a Jesuit monastery.

After four years, Galileo had decided on his life's work: he announced to his father that he wanted to be a monk. This was not exactly what father had in mind for his gifted son, so Galileo was hastily withdrawn from the monastery. In 1581, at the age of 17, he entered the University of Pisa to study medicine, as his father wished.

Shortly thereafter, at age 20, Galileo noticed a lamp swinging overhead while he was in a cathedral. Curious to find out how long it took the lamp to swing back and forth, he used his pulse to time large and small swings. Galileo discovered something that no one else had ever realized: the period of each swing was exactly the same. The law of the pendulum, which would eventually be used to regulate clocks, made Galileo instantly famous.

Unfortunately, except for mathematics, Galileo was bored by most of his courses and outspoken to his professors. His frequent absences from class eventually led the university to inform Galileo's family that their son was in danger of flunking out. A compromise was worked out, where Galileo would be tutored full-time in mathematics by the mathematician of the Tuscan court. Galileo's father was hardly overjoyed about this turn of events, since a mathematician's earning power was roughly around that of a musician, but it seemed that this might yet allow Galileo to successfully complete his college education. In the end, Galileo left the University of Pisa without a degree--a college dropout.

Faced with the need to somehow earn a living, Galileo started tutoring students in mathematics. He did some experimenting with floating objects, developing a balance that could tell him that a piece of, say, gold was 19.3 times heavier than the same volume of water. He also started campaigning for his life's ambition: a position on the mathematics faculty at a major university. Although Galileo was clearly brilliant, he had offended many people in the field, who would choose other candidates for vacancies. Ironically, it was a lecture on literature that would turn Galileo's fortunes. The Academy of Florence had been arguing over a 100-year-old controversy: What were the location, shape, and dimensions of Dante's Inferno?

To modern ears, this type of question sounds like asking for the location of Sherlock Holmes's 221B Baker Street, or the size of Dr. Frankenstein's castle. But the question was absolutely serious, and Galileo, asked to answer the question from the point of view of a man of science, treated it with dignity. Extrapolating from Dante's line that "[the giant Nimrod's] face was about as long/And just as wide as St. Peter's cone in Rome," Galileo deduced that Lucifer himself was 2,000 armlengths long. The audience was impressed, and Galileo was remembered with favor.

Within the year, Galileo had received a three-year appointment to the University of Pisa, the same university that never granted him a degree!


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