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Finding Galileo Galilei

May 6, 2013 —

Students in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa

The group in front of the leaning tower of Pisa in Galileo’s hometown.

In the spirit of this year’s Great Works Symposium theme, “Frontiers in Science,” Dr. Jonathon Seitz and Dr. Lloyd Ackert from the Department of History and Politics co-led a winter course entitled "Celebrity Science: Heretics and Geniuses." As part of the one-credit course, 13 students and two faculty members travelled to Italy to uncover the context in which one of history’s celebrated “heretics and geniuses,” Galileo Galilei, lived and worked. Galileo is well known today for his work in astronomy and physics, and for his clash with the Catholic Church, which resulted in his arrest, trial, and condemnation to lifetime house arrest in 1633.

In Florence, where Galileo lived for the last several decades of his life, the group explored sites connected to Galileo's wealthy Medici patrons and protectors, including the Medici Chapels, which house ornate family tombs; the Bargello Museum, which holds art and other Medici possessions; and the Laurentian Library, which stores a number of centuries-old scientific books from Europe and from Islamic lands in the Mediterranean region.

Students in front of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy

The group on the Ponte Vecchio (“Old Bridge”) over the Arno River on a walking tour of Florence.

In the midst of all this, students still had time to try some gelato and enjoy the Italian way of life. They explored Galileo’s hometown of Pisa, toured the Vatican and also had the chance to replicate some of Galileo’s experiments using reproductions of his instruments.

The Vatican Museums, St. Peter's Basilica, and other sites deepened their understanding of the Church's priorities in the era of Galileo: a time in which the Church generally and the Pope specifically had vast power, but also had financial problems, was entangled in European politics, and struggled to contain the damage and disruption of the Reformation. Students could see why the Church—or parts of it, anyway—cracked down on Galileo in the 1630s.

At the end of the trip, students considered the legacy of Galileo: “There was no single ‘aha’ moment for me,” said Sylvia Herbert ’14, rather I found myself surrounded by a countless number of small discoveries and experiences that built up a slow but sure understanding of the zeitgeist of the life and times of Galileo”—an understanding that could not be tapped by a textbook.

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