Galileo Galilei was an astronomer, mathematician and physicist who is sometimes called the Father of Modern Science because of his use of observation and experimentation, which we now call the scientific method. We’d like to share with you some of our favorite lesson plans for learning about the life and work of this important man.
Galileo was born in Pisa on 15 February 1564 and lived in Pisa, Padua, and Florence until his death on 8 January 1642. During his lifetime, he made a number of discoveries and experiments in different fields, but it is probably his work in the philosophy of science that has been most important over time.
The life and work of Galileo
Begin by adding Galileo to your classroom timeline in the year of his birth. You can also add other events from Galileo’s life. We like to use a paper cutout for each important person on our timeline, with the name, dates, and place of each person’s life. On the other side of the cutout, have students draw Galileo in the clothing of the time. We like the statue above, from the Ufizzi Gallery, but students can use an online image search to see paintings and drawings of Galileo, or do general research on the clothing worn during the Italian Renaissance.
Each student can use his or her cut out of Galileo to make a file folder project, as we see in our Heroes lesson plans (we think Galileo belongs in your heroes study too, so check out the ideas there and also in Science Heroes for more activities). Students can use graphic organizers and illustrations to show the things they learn about Galileo, and they can also add pockets to hold written reports, or staple a more formal paper into the folder.
With a nice collection of mini presentation board projects, you can create a display on the life and times of Galileo in your classroom.
Some of the things you might like to include in your study:
- Galileo’s father, a musician and composer, was the first person to prove that the pitch of a string varies as the square root of the tension. This was not exactly new information. since people had been tuning stringed instruments by the Pythagorean system for centuries by then. However, Vincenzo Galilei was the first to do the experiments which showed the math and physics clearly. Galileo brought the same scientific approach to other topics.
- One of the areas in which Galileo was most influential was in materials science, the study of how different materials behave. Another is in the study of motion. A famous experiment combined the two topics. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, had claimed that objects fell at speeds related to their weight. A light object would therefore fall more slowly than a heavy one. Galileo tested this claim and found that it was false. The story is that Galileo dropped a one pound weight and a ten pound weight at the same time from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to check the claim. Read more about this at the Physics Hypertext and try the experiment with instructions from The Exploratorium. The point, in terms of Galileo’s life, is that he made the experiment in a controlled way. Before Galileo, people had already noticed that Aristotle was wrong, but it was Galileo who prepared a controlled experiment to prove it.
- Galileo made important improvements to the telescope which allowed him to see a new star, to track the phases of Venus (as our moon has phases that make it appear to have a different shape, so does Venus), and to become very sure that the earth went around the sun and not the other way around. Copernicus had already said this, but Galileo was very dedicated to making it known to the general public. It’s difficult to do astronomical observation with a telescope in school (not dark enough), but Science Netlinks has a lesson on telescopes which focuses on the scientific method.
- Galileo got into trouble with the Inquisition in 1633, even though he was a devout Catholic and a friend of the Pope, and ended his life under house arrest. When FreshPlans went to Rome, we had the opportunity to visit an exhibit on this interesting part of Galileo’s life at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs, an extremely beautiful church designed in part by Michelangelo and built on the Diocletian Baths, an enormous bathhouse of Ancient Rome. The photo at the beginning of this post shows the dome of the basilica, designed in honor of Galileo, and we have a little slideshow below that shows some other parts of the church, including a statue of Galileo designed by a Chinese artist in the 21st century. In 2000, Pope John Paul II publicly expressed regret for the condemnation of Galileo, but there is still a surprising amount of controversy — not about whether the earth moves around the sun, but about what the Galileo Affair tells us about the relationship between science and religion. Have older students research “the Galileo Affair” and write about it. We would have them include both sources from the Catholic church and from the scientific community, because both groups have interesting things to say on the subject, but you know your community best.
The book Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei by Peter Sis is a wonderful and accessible book about Galileo for kids.
Galileo was a fine writer, and his books were very influential. Perhaps even more influential were letters that he wrote; they were shared publicly in the same way that we might now share a really good Facebook post. We haven’t found any versions of Galileo’s works that will be readable for students, but you might like to read The Essential Galileo for background. Quotes from Galileo:
“The universe cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.”
“Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.”
“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”