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Historical Astronomers in Context

February 7, 2013

Galileo Galilei

Galileo Galilei is important to astronomy for several reasons.  Although he often receives credit for inventing the telescope, he did not actually do that.  He did, however, greatly improve upon them, to such an extent that they could be used to peer far into space.  His other great contributions were being the first to see craters on the Moon, discovering sunspots, tracking the phases of Venus, seeing the rings of Saturn (as well as the planet itself), viewing the four largest moons of Jupiter (now called the Galilean moons) and maybe even discovering Neptune 200 years before it was officially recorded.  In addition to all that, he was also the first great advocate of the Copernican view of the solar system.

Concurrent Historical Events

Eighteen years after his birth, Galileo would have experienced the 1582 institution of the Gregorian calendar by Pope Gregory the XIII.  This calendar is the one still used in the West today, and accepted in most other parts of the world.  Another historical event that Galileo lived through, especially important for Americans, was the 1607 founding of Jamestown in Virginia.  Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in the New World and would be the capital of the Colony of Virginia for 83 years, from 1616 until 1699.  He also would have lived through most of the Thirty Years War, one of the bloodiest religious wars in world history.  It was fought between Catholics and Protestants on mainland Europe and lasted from 1618 to 1648.

Concurrent Historical Figures

During Galileo’s time, William Shakespeare (26 Apr. 1564 [baptised] – 23 Apr. 1616) would have been writing and acting in plays.  Shakespeare is, of course, one of the most influential English writers of all time, having written around 40 plays throughout his career and also having invented around 1700 of our now common English words.  Another great historical figure who lived at the same time as Galileo was Cardinal Richelieu (9 Sept. 15854 Dec. 1642).  While a cardinal, he was also a duke and a Minister in France.  He oversaw many of the day-to-day aspects of governing France and was responsible for helping King Louis XIII consolidate monarchic power, thereby turning France into a strong, centralized state.  Finally, Galileo would have been alive for Sir Francis Drake’s (1540 – 28 Jan. 1596) second circumnavigation of the globe (after Ferdinand Magellan), from 1577 to 1580.  Besides being the first Englishman to travel all the way around the world, he was also something of a pirate, attacking Spanish ships on their way home from the New World, laden with gold and other treasures.


After finishing this assignment, I was really impressed by the sheer amount of history there is.  Even the 16th and 17th centuries themselves are jam-packed with world events.  When I think of history, I tend to think of one event at a time, but that really isn’t an accurate way of thinking of it.  So many things are happening at the same time all around the world, it boggles the mind.  Researching all of the important figures who were around at the same time as Galileo also made me wonder how much he would have known of the events going on outside of Italy.  There was no internet or even reliable post service at the time, so I would like to know how important information about the world was disseminated, especially from nation to nation.  One last observation I have is that even though there was so much going on all around, the things that stand out most are the actions individuals took that they are still remembered for today.  Galileo played a relatively small role in relation to other events happening around him, but his discoveries resound through the ages down to the present day.  Even comparatively small actors can eventually have a large impact.


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