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What we can still learn from Galileo’s quest for the stars

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Portrait of Galileo Galilei (1636) by Justus Sustermans

Galileo was born in 1564 and died in 1642, a long life by the standards of the time, but his reputation as one of the greatest mathematicians and scientists of all time rests predominantly on a frenzied two-year period between 1610 and 1612.

By then he was clear in his own mind that what he wanted to do, above all, was prove Copernicus right. As his outstanding biographer, David Wootton put it;

“Prestige and fame were not enough for Galileo. Proving Aristotle wrong was not enough for Galileo. Revolutionising physics was not enough for Galileo. There was something else…”

The drive behind that ‘something else’? Wootton summarises:

“To prove Copernicanism would be great and noble; at the same time, it would be to prove the fundamental insignificance of the human species.”

Conceptually-speaking, goals don’t come much more ambitious than this one. In Galileo’s Italy, the Catholic Church — and therefore the authority of the Pope — were immensely powerful. The Church had reasserted itself during the Counter-Reformation in the late 16thcentury; the Jesuits had established a new, confident intellectual leadership and the Inquisition was ready to take on anyone who stepped out of line.

The power of Aristotle

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Roman copy of a Greek bust of Aristotle by Lysippos from 330 BC

Beyond religious dogma, the biggest influence by far on people’s world view was Aristotle, the great Ancient Greek philosopher, who had codified knowledge two thousand years earlier.

Hard to conceive now but in the 17th century, being able to cite an ancient authority such as Aristotle, was considered far more conclusive in an argument than facts or evidence. Indeed, as Wootton points out, in Galileo’s time the words for “fact” and “evidence” had only recently developed the meanings they have today. Along with the Catholic Church, Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy held sway and had done so for centuries.

It was true that the Reformation, and the development of Protestant alternatives to Catholicism had opened cracks in this scheme of things but it had not basically threatened the Natural Philosophy of the time. The Bible and all the ancient authorities since Aristotle confirmed that the Earth was the centre of everything, that it had been created for mankind, and that the Heavens, the Sun included, revolved around the Earth. Copernicus’s view, that actually the Earth orbited the Sun was unacceptable, whatever his calculations might say. In fact, it was revolutionary in every sense of the word.

In the long-run, the printing press would prove to be an even bigger threat to the dominant world view. From the early 16th century, ideas could now be shared much more widely and rapidly than ever before. This had helped prompt the Reformation itself (20% of everything printed and published in German before 1530 was by the prolific Martin Luther). By Galileo’s time printing had become fundamental to spreading the new science.

Galileo’s telescope

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Replica of Galileo’s telescope (Picture credit: The Science Museum London)

Brought up by a distant father, whom he aspired to please, and a terrifying mother (who once tried to sell him out to the Inquisition), Galileo embarked on an exceptional academic career in Pisa and then Venice.

He did much to establish, for example, the laws of falling bodies — the famous experiment of dropping things from the top of the leaning tower of Pisa included — which led him to question Aristotle’s physics.

He read ‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’,Copernicus’s great work published in 1543. Convinced by the case it made, Galileo now had a mission.

But the development that transformed Galileo’s life, and catapulted him to eternal fame, was the invention of the telescope. Contrary to popular myth, Galileo didn’t invent the telescope — it was a Dutch maker of spectacles in 1608 — but he did seize the idea with alacrity.

Once Galileo heard about the telescope (from his friend in Venice, Paolo Sarpi), he built one himself. Then drawing on decades of tinkering with mechanics, he improved it immeasurably through trial and error. That first Dutch telescope magnified an image three times — Galileo built telescopes that magnified things by eight and ten times, and then twenty and thirty times. Now he had the equipment with which he could prove Copernicus right (and the Catholic Church and the ancient authorities wrong) and achieve his ultimate ambition.

Galileo was in a hurry — and not just to achieve his big conceptual goal. He realised that if he could develop a good telescope so easily, it would not be long before others did too. If he wanted to make money from it (which would enable him to support both his mistress and his more or less dysfunctional family) he needed to move quickly.

Happily, there was an obvious market. For centuries his Venetian masters had made their living by trade across the Mediterranean. Surely they’d love a telescope so they could see ships much farther out to sea than ever before? And surely they’d pay for such a device? Yes, they would. No sooner had he demonstrated the telescope to the Venetian authorities, than demand took off.

Turning to the Heavens

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(Picture Credit: NASA)

Having set himself up to exploit the commercial benefits of his new device, he turned it on the Heavens. For two glorious years, 1610 to 1612, he saw far further into space than anyone had seen before and made a series of remarkable discoveries that, taken together, undoubtedly proved Copernicus right.

He discovered that the Milky Way was in fact made up of countless stars. He could see the planets, distinct from the stars, each unique. The moon had mountains and valleys just as Earth did. Then he identified that Jupiter had moons too — a stunning discovery.

Towards the end of 1610 he left Venice for Florence, attracted by the sponsorship and free time he was promised by the city’s Medici rulers (just as today’s soccer mega-stars move from club to club). By the middle of 1612 he had been able to show that sun spots were actually on the sun, not above it. Not long afterwards he discovered the rings of Saturn and explained the phases of Venus.

In combination, these discoveries overthrew entirely the world-view propagated by the Catholic Church. Now surely the argument would be over. Whatever the ancient texts might say, if you doubted Galileo (or Copernicus), all you had to do was find a telescope and see for yourself the mountains on the moon or the rings of Saturn. Galileo rushed out his book ‘The Starry Messenger’ and awaited the recognition that he believed was now due.

The Church reacts

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In spite of the now overwhelming evidence for Galileo’s case, and to his bitter disappointment, the religious and academic authorities remained at best sceptical, at worst outright offended. Some thought Galileo’s case was heretical.

They simply refused to believe that their intellectual world had collapsed and the sky had fallen in. In one of the great ironies of scientific history, in 1616, just a few years after Galileo had proved it was true, the Catholic Church formally condemned Copernicanism. All books that made the case for Copernicanism were proscribed. Galileo thought that not even “a saint could have shown more reverence or more zeal towards the Church” than he had, but that cut no ice with the religious authorities.

What is more, no-one in academia believed Galileo either. David Wootton makes the staggering observation that:

“In his whole lifetime not a single professor of philosophy in a European University supported him on any topic.”

In 1623 Galileo thought there might be another chance for his views to be recognised. Maffeo Barberini (from Medici Florence like Galileo) became Pope Urban VIII. He and Galileo knew and liked each other. After several meetings, Pope Urban agreed that Galileo could make the case that Copernicanism was a plausible idea but not that it was true.

This was a step forward but in the years that followed Galileo overplayed his hand; in his book ‘Dialogue’, Galileo made the argument he had agreed with the Pope, but in a mocking manner. He misjudged the extent to which his friendship with an individual Pope could overturn the entire long-established view of the world.

In 1633, elderly and in pain, he was dragged before the Inquisition where he buckled under pressure. His book was burnt before his own eyes and he ended up living out his last years effectively under house arrest.

Lessons for delivery

From this dramatic story what lessons can we learn about delivery?

1. To achieve big ambitious goals — and few are bigger or more ambitious than Galileo’s — when your moment comes, you have to seize it. In Galileo’s case, this was the invention of the telescope,

2. Good equipment really does help. As with Team Sky and their beautiful bicycles, so with Galileo and his ever more powerful telescopes. Moreover, the very idea of continuous improvement — marginal gains in Team Sky language — was new in Galileo’s time.

3. However strong your argument, and however convincing your evidence, don’t assume that everyone will believe you.

4. Your personal characteristics play a bigger part in achieving recognition than you may think. Galileo could be prickly and was not always generous of spirit. He had an intellectual arrogance that made him more likely to dismiss his critics than engage with them. He was not afraid to be alone against the world. Perhaps a more amenable character would have made a better fist of engaging with the Church; but equally perhaps a more amenable character would not have set out to deliver the knock-out blow to the dominant belief system of his time.

5. This leads to a final point, applicable across accomplishment in any field. First, you have to actually do whatever you have set out to accomplish; and second, you have to convince people that you’ve done it. The doing alone is not enough.


By the late 17th century, of course, Galileo’s view of the world became much more widely accepted. As the idea of evidence-based science replaced superstition, Copernicanism ceased to be controversial. Scientists such as Newton and Boyle stood on the shoulders of the giant, Galileo, and saw further. But Galileo was long since dead.

The ultimate moral, therefore, is that while recognition might be desirable, it’s not a good reason on its own for embarking on your mission. Do what you want to do because you believe in it, for its own intrinsic worth, for the benefits it might bring to life on earth — and see any recognition that might come your way as an added bonus.

(Reference - Wootton, D. (2010) ‘Galileo: Watcher of the Skies’, New Haven Yale)

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