Episode 39 – Isaac Newton versus Galileo Galilei

Moving over to the Rebels, Rogues and Scholars bracket we have a doozy of a battle for you today. On one side, we have the Englishman, who, through his book, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica also known as the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy or Principia in short, led to the basic understanding of classical mechanics. His opponent is known as the “father of observational astronomy,” the “father of modern physics,” the “father of the scientific method,” and the “father of modern science,” Galileo Galilei.

My primary source for Isaac Newton is Newton: The Making of a Genius by Patricia Fara and my primary sources for his opponent is Galileo by J. L. Heilbron and Galileo’s Mistake by Wade Rowland. I also use a few compendia works on famous people to round out my research.

Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton

Our first combatant is a man who pretty much stayed in the same area for his entire life, Isaac Newton. He was born, according to the old Julian calendar on Christmas day of 1642 or January 4, 1643, according to our calendar in Woolsthorpe Manor in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, near Lincolnshire, in eastern England.

Before we delve into his early life, I’d like to read a passage from the book, Newton: The Making of a Genius by Patricia Fara that gives us a brief overview of his life. “Isaac Newton is now universally celebrated as a scientific genius, perhaps the greatest who ever lived. Yet Newton was not a scientist. Surprising as this assertion may seem, it is crucial for analyzing his rise to glory. The word ‘scientist’ was not even invented until more than 100 years after his death, and Newton was an expert in fields that profoundly interested contemporaries, yet have nothing to do with modern science. Unpaid, often mocked, his esoteric colleagues were as interested in moving nearer to God as in achieving progress towards a better world. Obsessed with alchemy, Newton regularly scoured the Bible for prophecies, redated ancient Egyptian chronology, converted his own mathematics back into classical geometry of the Greeks, and spent thirty years chasing forgers as head of the Royal Mint in London.” 

Let’s find out more about how Newton became the genius that he was to become. His father, also named Isaac Newton, had died three months before his son’s premature birth. His mother, Hannah, remarried a few years later, leaving her son to be raised by his grandmother until he was 12 years of age. Newton was sent to Grantham where they had a grammar school. 

When he was 17, he was taken out of the school, supposedly by his now twice-widowed mother to become a farmer. The headmaster, seeing something special in Isaac, convinced his mother to send him back to school which she did. His second go there was more successful as he became the top student there.

In 1661, he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge as a student. Newton was to remain there for the next thirty-five years as a student, then as faculty. Little is known of his four years at Trinity because of his solitary behavior. No one wrote of him or remembered him. His professor, Isaac Barrow, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics had a “conceived then but an indifferent opinion of him.” Newton was to be given the Lucasian seat at Cambridge some years later from Barrow.

The plague arrived in Cambridge, causing the young Isaac to leave town and stay in Lincolnshire for the next year and a half. Remember in episode 9 where we talked about Albert Einstein and his annus mirabilis, or miracle year in 1909? Well, Newton’s annus mirabilis was 1666, the year he spent in Lincolnshire. It was during this period that Isaac was to begin his foundational work on optics, and the law of gravitation as well as the theories behind calculus.

Newton though continued in his hermit-like behavior despite being made fellow at Trinity. Most people today assume that he was delving deeper into the subjects that were to make him famous, but this is simply not the case. As he would continue to do through much of his life, he devoted much of his time on studying things like alchemical experiments and numerology.

The first thing that made the public stand up and notice Newton was not his mathematical skills, but the construction of a 15 cm long telescope which was far more powerful than other, larger devices of the time. This creation was the key to his being elected to the Royal Society in 1672. Isaac’s subsequent lecture on optics would revolutionize the field. He wrote the book Optiks, which was published in 1704 in which he describes his experiments with prisms and the nature of light. Not only that, but his work was to revolutionize the methodology of scientific practice forever.

Throughout the 1670s, Isaac Newton was to concentrate on alchemy and theology. Not that he abandoned mathematics, oh far from it. Newton was to begin to lay the groundworks for the field of fluxions; we would know it as calculus. His work was to come about at the same time as the German philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, with whom he would have a dispute with for decades.

I’d like to turn back to Patricia Fara’s book on Newton again as she has such a great insight into him and his life. “Even the briefest survey of Newton’s life unsettles his image of the idealized prototype of a modern scientist. Like many of his contemporaries, Newton was engaged in a wide range of activities, many of which fell far beyond the scope of what we would expect of a scientific figurehead. A renowned expert on Jason’s fleece, Pythagorean harmonics and Solomon’s temple, his advice also sought on the manufacture of coins and remedies for headaches. On the other hand, he was free of the responsibilities besetting today’s international high-fliers. Newton had no laboratory team to supervise, no obligation to generate commercially viable research projects, and never traveled outside eastern England – his most adventurous journey was a trip up the Thames to the Astronomical Observatory in Greenwich.”

That last part is particularly intriguing and surprising. Imagine never leaving your state, or county for your entire life. Contrast this to Einstein or even Michael Faraday who traveled quite a bit and learned so much while on the road. Newton liked the familiarity of surroundings, so his not going to foreign lands or even outside his comfort zone in eastern England is not surprising. 

Isaac Newton’s most famous work, the Principia, was done in the 1680s which followed a period of comets streaking across the sky, which was seen as prophetic by the superstitious people of the day. This was when Newton delved into the field of mathematical astronomy. It is also the period when his dispute with Leibniz began. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Newton battled over who had first invented calculus. While there has been a raging argument over the centuries about who really invented calculus, it is likely that both men discovered it simultaneously. The terminology and the annotations we use today though are the ones Leibniz created. 

Here are the arguments that Leibniz did his work independently and the rebuttal.

The claim that Leibniz invented the calculus independently of Newton: A) published a description of his method some years before Newton printed anything on fluxions; B) always alluded to the discovery as being his own invention. This statement went unchallenged for some years; C) enjoyed the strong presumption that he acted in good faith; D) demonstrated in his private papers his development of the ideas of calculus in a manner independent of the path taken by Newton.

According to those on Newton’s side A) Leibniz saw some of Newton’s papers on the subject in or before 1675 or at least 1677 and B) he obtained the fundamental ideas of the calculus from those papers.

From everything I’ve read, I believe that both men discovered the concepts of calculus at the same time. Leibniz eventually lost the battle as his benefactor, Elector Georg Ludwig of Hanover would become King George I of England in 1714. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz would die just two years later, somewhat broken hearted.

Newton’s work aside from calculus is staggering. Not only was he a pioneer in optics, but he also defined concepts like mechanical motion and gravity. So much of the inventions of the Industrial Revolution, which we discussed in episode 17 were in part due to the findings of Isaac Newton. We live in a world today that is defined by our Newtonian view of things. While we know that quantum mechanics explains part of our universe, what Newton showed us is how to explain things that we can see and feel in our everyday lives.

The last years of Isaac Newton’s life were somewhat strange as he delved deeper and deeper into mysticism and other erratic behaviors. He was also a loner, never having married and likely never to have had a lover of any sex. As Voltaire said of Newton, “(he) was never sensible to any passion, was not subject to the common frailties of mankind, nor had any commerce with women—a circumstance which was assured me by the physician and surgeon who attended him in his last moments.” It has been speculated that Isaac Newton died a virgin, an idea proposed by people like mathematician Charles Hutton, economist John Maynard Keynes, and physicist Carl Sagan.

When Newton died on March 20, 1727, he had given all of his worldly positions away to family and friends. One of the theories surrounding the cause of his death was mercury poisoning. It was found in abundance in his hair and is likely to have come from his numerous alchemical experiments.

Now on to the putting it into perspective segment of the podcast.

During Newton’s lifetime, Oliver Cromwell becomes Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland, the Taj Mahal is completed, Louis XIV is crowned king of France, the last dodo bird is killed, and the Battle of Vienna is fought, halting the Ottoman expansion into Europe.

Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei

Galileo Galilei, our next contestant, was born on February 15, 1564, in the town of Pisa, then part of the Duchy of Florence. Galileo was one of six children born to Vincenzo Galilei, a famous lute player, composer, and music theorist, and Giulia Ammannati. When he was eight, the family moved to Florence, but the young boy did not stay with them; instead, he lived with Jacopo Borghiniuntil he was ten. In 1575, he was sent off to study at the Vallombrosa Abbey, about 30 km southeast of Florence.

In his early years, there were a number of subjects which Galileo excelled in. Mathematics, music, art, and language were things he enjoyed. Unfortunately for his father, none were the profession he envisioned his son would follow, medicine. The Galilei family was not as well off as they would have liked. This caused Galileo to have to work hard for most of his life.  

As J.L Heilbron puts it in his biography of Galileo, “As a young man, carefree despite the family’s straitened finances, esteemed by friends from among the best families in Florence, clever, witty, sociable, versed in literature and music, with a gift for geometry and a taste for gambling, Galileo did not resemble much the troubled inventor of modern science familiar from the usual histories. His friends would not have expected him to become the sworn enemy of Aristotle, the champion of Copernicus, the standard-bearer of mathematics, the bête noir of the Jesuits, or the best-known of all martyrs to academic freedom. Galileo would have become none of these things had he not had to work for a living.”

Before we get into the specifics of Galileo’s life, I’d like to read another short passage from Heilbron’s work. “Galileo lived for 78 years, many of them in the eye of a storm. He had friends, enemies, and correspondents of all sorts: mathematicians, literary people, bureaucrats, princes, cardinals, and characters from the heroic poems he knew almost by heart.” 

There was a time when Galileo considered the life of a priest, but he quickly dismissed that. Instead, at his father’s behest, he decided to go into medicine as it was one of the highest paying jobs at the time. This was not Galileo’s favorite subject, so when he attended a lecture on geometry and fell in love with it, he had his excuse to change his career focus.

By 1589, Galileo was appointed as a mathematics chair at the University of Pisa. Three years later, right after his father died, Galileo, along with his brother Michelangelo (no, not that Michelangelo) he moved to Padua where he taught at the University geometry, mechanics, and astronomy until 1610. His brother was to be an economic drag on Galileo for the rest of his life.

It was during this period that the Italian polymath would make some of his most important discoveries. He had already invented an early version of the thermometer and made significant discoveries in both pure fundamental sciences, like kinematics of motion and astronomy. In practical applied science he helped his contemporaries understand the strength of different materials along with pioneering the use of the telescope. His multiple interests included the study of astrology, which at the time was a discipline tied to the studies of mathematics and astronomy.

It is about this time, with the publication of The Assayer in 1623. The topic of the paper was about the nature of comets, and it was in opposition to the findings of the Jesuits and in particular one Father Orazio Grassi, who was a professor of mathematics at the Jesuit Collegio Romano. This, and the subsequent back and forth publication of conflicting papers led to a lifelong dislike of Galileo by the Jesuits, something that would come back to haunt the polymath in the very near future.

We now need to turn to one of Galileo Galilei’s greatest controversy, heliocentrism. The idea that the earth was not the center of the universe was in direct conflict with the Catholic Church’s view. Opponents to Galileo’s theory pointed to Biblical references such as Psalm 93:1, 96:10, and 1 Chronicles 16:30 “the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved.” Psalm 104:5 says, “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Added to that we have, Ecclesiastes 1:5 which states that “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place.”

There were other arguments against Galileo’s concept that the earth circles the sun like one by Tycho Brahe. He claimed, “… that the distance to the stars in the Copernican system would have to be 700 times greater than the distance from the Sun to Saturn. Moreover, the only way the stars could be so distant and still appear the sizes they do in the sky would be if even average stars were gigantic – at least as big as the orbit of the Earth, and of course vastly larger than the sun.” Today, we know that Brahe was wrong, and Galileo correct, but at the time, it was another argument against the Italian scholar, something his opponents were all too happy to jump on.

In his now famous Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, Galileo states, “I hold the sun to be situated motionless in the center of the revolution of the celestial orbs while the earth rotates on its axis and revolves about the sun. They know also that I support this position not only by refuting the arguments of Ptolemy and Aristotle … especially some pertaining to physical effects whose causes perhaps cannot be determined in any other way, and other astronomical discoveries; these discoveries clearly confute the Ptolemaic system, and they agree admirably with this other position and confirm it.”

It is here that the Church begins, in 1614, the condemnation of Galileo and his supposed heretical beliefs. The basis of their claims against Galilei was a decree from the Council of Trent which was held between 1545 and 1563“…to check unbridled spirits, [the Holy Council] decrees that no one relying on his own judgment shall, in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, distorting the Scriptures in accordance with his own conceptions, presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which the holy mother Church… has held or holds…”

Furthermore, Niccolo Loreni sent the following to the Inquisitor in Rome, “All our Fathers of the devout Convent of St. Mark feel that the letter contains many statements which seem presumptuous or suspect, as when it states that the words of Holy Scripture do not mean what they say; that in discussions about natural phenomena the authority of Scripture should rank last… . [The followers of Galileo] were taking it upon themselves to expound the Holy Scriptures according to their private lights and in a manner different from the common interpretation of the Fathers of the Church.”

In 1616, the Inquisition declared heliocentrism to be “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” Galileo was put on notice that his idea of heliocentrism was heretical and that he could no longer claim that it was the truth although he was still allowed to discuss it in mathematical terms. For the next ten years, Galileo was pretty much under a gag order by the Roman Catholic Church.

His next book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was published in 1632, with formal authorization from the Inquisition and permission from the new Pope, Urban VII. Urban, was considered a friend of Galileo, but the book seems, although unwittingly, to mock the Pope which caused the Italian scientist to be brought before inquisitor Vincenzo Maculani to be charged with heresy. 

Galileo had no choice but to recant his belief in the Copernican theory of heliocentrism. He was found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” namely of having held the opinions that the Sun lies motionless at the center of the universe, that the Earth is not at its center and moves, and that one may hold and defend an opinion as probable after it has been declared contrary to Holy Scripture. He was required to “abjure, curse and detest” those opinions.

He was sentenced to formal imprisonment at the pleasure of the Inquisition. On the following day, this was commuted to house arrest, which he remained under for the rest of his life. The Dialogue was banned, and publication of any of his present and future works were forbidden.

Legend says that after the recantation, Galileo was heard to have mumbled, “And yet, it moves.” For the remaining years of his life under house arrest, he produced one of his greatest works, the Two New Sciences. It was based on the subjects we now call kinematics and strength of materials. The works were published in Holland to avoid the censor in Rome. 

After turning blind in 1638, he suffered from various health problems until his death on January 8, 1642, at the age of 77. His scientific advances in astronomy, engineering, and physics were to lay the groundwork for thousands of scientists in the future, including, Isaac Newton. I would, of course, be remiss if I didn’t mention the most famous of Galileo’s experiments, first reported by his pupil Vincenzo Viviani who stated that Galileo had dropped balls of the same material, but different masses, from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to demonstrate that their time of descent was independent of their mass. This was in direct opposition to Aristotle who claimed that heavier objects would fall faster than lighter ones. 

One thing I did not cover in this podcast was much of Galileo’s personal life. To sum it up, I will end my time with the Italian polymath with the following quote from Wade Rowland’s book, Galileo’s Mistake: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation between Galileo and the Church.

“In my exploration of the myth I discovered there are many Galileos: Galileo the dutiful eldest son who made great personal sacrifices to support his mother and siblings after his father’s untimely death; Galileo the truant lover who left the mother of his three children when social status beckoned; Galileo the father of two daughters whom he shut away in a cloistered convent at an unconscionably early age; Galileo the man of culture who loved music, art, and literature, especially the classics, and who rejoiced in the delights of the cellar and the table; and Galileo the scientific and philosophical polemicist, who had a great power as a writer in the Italian vernacular and loved to flex his literary muscles in the cut and thrust of debate.”

Now we head off to the putting it into perspective segment of things that happened in the world during Galileo’s lifetime. Ivan the Terrible reigned as Tsar in Russia with Elizabeth I serving as Queen of England, countries throughout Europe begin to adopt the Gregorian calendar, and a version of the poem, Three Blind Mice is first published in London. 

Time for us to start comparing the two great scientific geniuses. First off, we have the fifteen points to be given out for the length of time each man was a scholar. Isaac Newton began his career in 1664, ending with his death in 1727 for an amazing total of 63 years. As for Galileo Galilei, he started in 1581 and ended with his death in 1642, or 61 years. The longevity of both men is almost unheard of during their lifetimes. Newton with 15 and Galileo with 14 points.

Next up are the twenty points for their effect on the rest of the world during their lifetime. This one is very tight as both men influenced the world around them with Newton being slightly more influential as he had almost no roadblocks put in front of him as opposed to the Church’s blockage of Galileo’s work. I believe, had the Catholic Church not fought Galilei’s research, he would have had a much more significant influence, but history is not about ifs and buts, so Isaac gets twenty points with Galileo receiving 17.

Time to give out the twenty-five points for their lasting effect on world history. Boy is this one a tough call. We see the world today through Newtonian glasses which of course were partly based on the Galilean world of science. Newton stood on the shoulders of men like Galileo who was brave enough to stand up to the two-thousand-year-old beliefs of Aristotle. The incredible technological advances of today are made possible due to the minds of the two great scientists we are talking about today. For this reason, I am giving both men the full twenty-five points.

This leaves us with the final, big point giveaway of forty points for the effect they had on their country for the better. This was one where I had to give a lot of thought to. What it came down to is the interference of the Catholic Church on Galileo and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, influenced by the work of Newton, which began in England as you might remember from episode 17. For these reasons, I’m giving Sir Isaac Newton the full forty with Galileo Galilei getting 35. 

So, the final totals are 100 for Newton and 91 for Galileo. Isaac moves on to the second round to face off against either Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey or the Mexican rebel, Emiliano Zapata. 

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