Galileo is popularly given this title because Galileo is the only figure in early modern science before Newton that most people have heard of.
This is partly because of the popular (but mostly incorrect) version of the story of his persecution by the Catholic Church and his resulting elevation to the position of “martyr for science”.
Which has, in turn, given rise to a variety of further myths about him that maintain he was somehow unique in his time, the first to do various things, and far ahead of any other scientist of his era – all of which are actually untrue.
No, he wasn’t.
The general principles of induction based on observation had been practised since the Greeks and Ptolemy and Archimedes had both taken this still further and used the same methodology later used by Galileo in the field of dynamics.
This methodology was also practised by al-Haytham and discussed in detail by Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon in the Middle Ages.
These earlier antecedents aside, Galileo still was not even the first to practice this methodology in his own time. William Gilbert and Simon Stevin had already published extensive works based on their utilisation of the scientific method and done so to great acclaim while Galileo was still an unknown professor of mathematics.
Both Galileo and Kepler were greatly influenced by their works. Galileo was not even the first in his time to lay out how empirically-based science works – that was Francis Bacon.
No, he wasn’t.
Since Greek astronomy was originally a branch of mathematics, the first people to do this were the Greek and their Hellenic successors in the Roman Era. Again, here we find Ptolemy and Archimedes.
The mathematicsation of science really took off with the study of optics in the Medieval Islamic world and then with its application to physics in the later Middle Ages, particularly by the “Merton Calculators” at Oxford and their successors in Paris in the fourteenth century. Thomas Bradwardine even wrote:
“Mathematics is the revealer of genuine truth, for it knows every hidden secret and bears the key to every subtlety of letters. Whoever, then, has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom.”
That was in 1323 – a full 241 years before Galileo was even born.
Galileo seems to have been familiar with the work of the medieval predecessors and it is now accepted that the Mean Speed Theorem – traditionally attributed to him – was actually first derived by the Merton Calculators.
In his own time, Galileo was preceded by many other scholars in the continued application of mathematics to physics, including Niccolo Tartaglia and Giambattista Benedetti. But it was Kepler who was the major writer in this area before Galileo, along with (again) Simon Stevin and Ismael Boulliau.
Myth 3: “He was the first to question Aristotle’s physics and break his stranglehold on western science.”
No, he wasn’t.
Aristotle’s induction-based claims had been questioned and proven wrong many times long before Galileo. His claim that heavier weights fell faster than lighter ones had been disproved by John Philoponus back in the sixth century and Aristotle had been further corrected by Jean Buridan in the fourteenth century.
The reaction against the influence of Aristotle was in full swing long before Galileo and (yet again) Simon Stevin was at the forefront of this movement in Galileo’s time.
Further Myths: “He was the first to invent the telescope/formulate the Mean Speed Theorem/develop hydrostatics/conceive of the Law of Inertia”
He was not the first to do any of these things.
So why has he gained a reputation as the “father of science”, the “first great scientist” the “first modern scientist”, etc?
This is partly because, as noted above, his central role in the early modern controversy over heliocentrism has made him the hero of a mythic version of history that, while largely nonsense, appeals to many people’s modern prejudices and plays into a fable about science and religion that many find satisfying.
It’s also because he was a great writer and a very good self publicist. The works of Kepler are very difficult for modern readers, even modern astronomers, to even understand today.
Other technical works by people like the mathematicians who laid the foundations of his work (like Tartaglia and Benedetti), or other scientists who preceded him (Stevin), or outdid him (Christoph Scheiner), are also complex and very dry for modern readers.
But Galileo’s works are clear and accessible. This is why he tends to be lionised by modern popularisers of the history of science like Carl Sagan and Neil de Grasse Tyson – because he is more read than any of his contemporaries.
Finally, popular history still likes the nineteenth century concept of “the Great Man” – the towering figure who appears from nowhere and changes everything, “advancing” the course of “human progress” as he does so. Historians know history does not actually work this way, but “the Great Man” narrative makes for a better story and is easier to tell than the more nuanced, complex and messy reality that is actual history.
So ultimately that’s why Galileo is called “the Father of Modern Science” – because it makes for a better story, even though it’s wrong. Galileo was a remarkable early scientist and a great and significant figure in the history of science.
But he was not “the Father of Modern Science”, nor was he many of the other things he is claimed to be.
This post first appeared on Quora. It has been edited for publication.