An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: Galileo Galilei

As an aid to students, teachers and parents dealing with the challenges of home learning, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. Day by day, we will be sharing a bite size introduction to a historical figure, event or period – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. Today, Gombrich covers Galileo Galilei.


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Galileo Galilei

E. H. GombrichThe first man to understand the extraordinary magical power of applying mathematical calculation to things in nature was an Italian called Galileo Galilei. He had devoted many years to observing, analyzing and describing such things when, one day, someone denounced him for writing exactly what Leonardo da Vinci had observed but not explained. What he had written was this: the sun does not move – on the contrary, it is the earth which moves around the sun, together with the planets. This discovery had already been made by a Polish scholar named Copernicus, after many years of calculation. It had been published in 1543 but the theory had been denounced as un-Christian and heretical by Catholic and Protestant priests alike.

They pointed to a passage in the Old Testament in which Joshua asks God not to let dusk fall until his enemy is destroyed. In answer to his prayer, we read: ‘The sun stood still and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves on their enemies.’ If the Bible says the sun stood still, people argued, then the sun must normally be in motion. And to suggest the sun did not move was therefore heretical, and contradicted what was written in the Bible.

‘And yet it moves.’

So in 1632, when he was nearly seventy years old, Galileo, who had devoted is whole life to scholarship was brought before a religious tribunal known as the Inquisition, and made to choose between being burned as a heretic or renouncing his theory about the movement of the earth around the sun. He signed a declaration saying that he was but a poor sinner, for he had taught that the earth moved around the sun. In this way he avoided being burned, the fate of many of his predecessors. Nevertheless, when he signed the declaration, he is said to have muttered under his breath: ‘And yet it moves.’

None of these fixed ideas was in the end able to prevent Galileo’s ideas and methods and all the discoveries he made from influencing and inspiring people in ever-increasing numbers. And if today, thanks to mathematical formulas, we can make nature do whatever we want, so that we have telephones, aeroplanes and computers, and all the rest of modern technology, we should be grateful to those who, like Galileo, investigated nature’s mathematical laws at a time when it was a dangerous thing to do.

Discover more A-Z blogposts here.

Free Resources to Learn More about the Galileo Galilei

At the time of publication, these resources were free to use (some for a limited time only, during the COVID-19 pandemic).

BBC Bitesize (KS2)

The work of Galileo Galilei

BBC History

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

The School Run

Galileo Galilei

Khan Academy

Various resources

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.


A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

Discover More

The Little Histories are vivid storybook introductions for the young and old alike. Inspiring and entertaining, each short book lays out our greatest subjects in deceptively simple, engaging tones. With charming and personal insights each expert gently takes the reader from ancient times to the present through bite size chapters, ideal as bedtime reading or on the journey to work. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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