Professor Albert Van Helden, Rice University
Mack P. Holt
George Mason University
This award-wining site offers valuable information on the life and work of the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), as well as on the scientific community of 17th-century Europe. The site was created to give students much needed background, context, and primary sources in English for a course on Galileo and the Scientific Revolution. As such, the site provides one of the most useful online introductions to the history of science, as well as over 15 links to other relevant sites and sources.
The home page is divided into four principal links: “Introduction,” “Galileo’s Villa,” “Galileo’s Daughter,” “Timeline of Galileo’s Life & Era,” “Maps of Galileo’s World,” “Resources,” and “Student Work.” “Timeline of Galileo’s Life & Era” provides much more than a full outline of Galileo’s life and career. There are more than 50 illustrations—many from Galileo’s own drawings and published works—as well as more than a dozen detailed links on all of Galileo’s major discoveries and scientific ideas: motion, sun spots, his development of the telescope, and the moons of Jupiter being only the most well known. This section also takes the user through Galileo’s major publications, building up to his “Dialogue Concerning Two World Systems” published in 1632. This is the work that got Galileo into trouble, as it put forth the views of the heliocentric system of Copernicus, eventually leading to Galileo’s arrest and trial by the Inquisition. All this is expertly told, with enough illustrations, selections from Galileo’s writings, and technical explanations to satisfy even the most novice of users.
“Galileo’s Villa” is not really devoted to an analysis of the scientist’s living quarters, although one can find this information here. Instead, the developers have used the villa as a metaphor for an introduction to the world of Galileo and his scientific ideas. For example, “Family Quarters” is a link to information about Galileo’s family. The “Laboratory” provides a brief seminar on Galileo’s experiments in physics and mechanics, while “Portrait Gallery” provides dozens of images of other scientists and churchmen in the 17th century. “Receiving Parlor” is currently under construction, and contains links to texts about Galileo’s career, including biographies of his patrons and accounts of the universities with which he was associated. “Chapel,” in addition to information about the Inquisition, includes links to biographies of important church figures. “Library” is the bibliography of the Galileo Project. Additionally, a few links about authors and books that played significant roles in Galileo’s career are also included in this room.
“Instrument Closet” contains six texts with over a dozen images about the instruments used by Galileo to perform his experiments, while the “Observing Terrace” outlines various accounts of Galileo’s discoveries of Jupiter’s moons, biographies of contemporary astronomers, and accounts of rival cosmologies. Moreover, in this room, there are also a few links to online resources for modern astronomy and astrophysics, including stellar images from NASA and national observatories.
“Maps of Galileo’s World,” (still under construction) contains three maps: of Florence, Central Europe, and Italy. “Student Work” is where students of Professor Van Helden have posted their work on the history of science and the Scientific Revolution. Finally, there are very useful links in the “Resources” section: a glossary of scientific terms, 16 links to related online sources, as well as a searchable database of more than 600 scientists and thinkers of the 16th and 17th centuries.
The real jewel in the crown, however, is the section on “Galileo’s Daughter.” This section focuses on Galileo’s eldest daughter, Maria Celeste Galilei, and the intimate correspondence between her and her father in the 1620s and 1630s. Maria Celeste was a nun in the Convent of San Matteo, a Franciscan convent of the order called Poor Clares. In 1999, historian Dava Sobel provided full-text English transcriptions for all 124 letters between Maria Celeste and her father—from March 1623 to December 1633—to the Galileo Project, and these are included on the site.1 This is the very period that Galileo wrote his “Dialogue Concerning Two World Systems,” and besides lots of information on Galileo’s family life, there is a running commentary between Galileo and his educated daughter about his efforts to publish his revolutionary findings without attracting the ire of the church. In short, this site contains the only English transcriptions of this correspondence, and it provides a unique source into the mind of one of the giants of the Scientific Revolution. In addition, these letters are equally revealing about life in a convent, and they are about the only surviving source we have for the Convent of San Matteo.
This is an extremely useful site for students of the Scientific Revolution as well as for students of women and convent life in early modern Europe. It is easily the best site on the World Wide Web about Galileo, and it offers much to anyone interested in learning more about the confrontation between religion and science in 17th-century Europe.
1 Dava Sobel ed., Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo, 1623-1633 (New York: Pengiun Books, 2001, 2003).