The Amazing Galileo Abstraction

Galileo, oil painting by Justus Sustermans, c. 1637; in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Galileo, oil painting by Justus Sustermans, c. 1637; in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

I am not a huge fan of photorealism. And I don’t particularly enjoy total abstraction (i.e. nonobjective or nonrepresentational art). For any of you who regularly read my blog posts, these declarations are not staggering news.

The artworks I enjoy most always teeter on the line between these two extremes. However, they are not so opposite as one might think, the real and the abstract. Perhaps this idea of a “line between” is not such an accurate description of their relationship…

When considering this topic, I like to turn to the great artists and scientists who have, to say the least, dabbled in the opposite field. Leonardo da Vinci was a successful artist AND  mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, botanist, etc. Albert Einstein was a great scientist AND violinist (plus he was very vocal about the benefits of creative thought and imagination).

I recently came across an article that made a case for another influential player:  Galileo Galilei.


Galileo's drawings of the moon

Galileo’s drawings of the moon

Yep, that’s him. He advocated that the Earth went around the Sun, which was contrary to what most folk believed at the time. The  Roman Inquisition in 1615 concluded that Galileo was quite wrong and banned him from spreading such evil lies. However, Galileo (that crusader of science!) wrote A Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in which he defended his heliocentric views. The Catholic Church was none too pleased with this publication, as it appeared to attack the Church.

Thus, after an Inquisition in 1633, Galileo was convicted of heresy, and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. That did not stop him from continuing to research and publish, though.

These days, this Italian scientist is known as the “The Father of Modern Science.” Like Einstein or Copernicus or Beyonce, he’s so famous he doesn’t need a last name.


It wasn’t just that Galileo brought outstanding scientific theories to the table (and stuck to his guns when doing so): he was lauded for the methods he developed to prove them. His use of abstract thinking was revolutionary to the scientific field in his day.

“Galileo showed how abstraction may be related to the world of experience, how from thinking about ‘the nature of things’ one may derive laws related to direct observation.”1

He used analogies and abstract logic to learn about the universe. Galileo believed that the Laws of Nature were mathematically based, and so applying mathematical concepts to observations can reveal more about the inner-workings of the universe.

For example, the average person does not see the earth go around the sun. A person can observe the sun sink below the horizon in the West and rise in the East day after day. All the evidence points to the fact that the Sun goes around the Earth. Our brains have gleaned as much information from our observations as it can on the subject. “Math, however, gives us an extra sense. And there are truths that can only be accessed through mathematics.”2


inductive and deductive

Figure 1

Mathematics was very important to Galileo, to be sure, but the observation of nature was far and away the boss: “his creative thinking was characterized by a constant interaction between abstraction and reality, between theoretical ideas and experimental data.”1 Galileo was willing to change his views in accordance with his observations.

This is actually quite different from the methods of his time. Two vocab words to note: inductive and deductive reasoning (see Figure 1). In Galileo’s day, scientists were deductive reasoners, but Galileo used both as complementary and reinforcing methods. This approach is the cornerstone to the developement of the scientific method and characterized the Western transition into the scientific age.

“The extraordinary advances made by him were due to his application of mathematical analysis to physical problems…Galileo was the first man who perceived that mathematics and physics, previously kept in separate compartments, were going to join forces. He was thus able to unify celestial and terrestrial phenomena into one theory, destroying the traditional division between the world above and the world below the Moon. The method that was peculiarly his consisted in the combination of experiment with calculation–in the transformation of the concrete into the abstract and the assiduous comparison of results.”3


Too often I find myself thinking about Art and Science as two completely different subjects, as caricatures in opposite corners of a boxing ring. But to summarize these fields as such dilutes their power and skews how I apply and value them in life. Art and Science are habits of mind, straining to unearth truth in this world, and developing the mind’s ability for abstract thought will facilitate new and more profound discoveries.

Giuseppe Bertini (1825-1898), Galileo Galleo showing the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope.

Giuseppe Bertini (1825-1898), Galileo Galleo showing the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope.


(1)Cohen, I. Bernard. The Birth of a New Physics. New York (1985).

(2) “Lessons in Abstraction from Galileo.” Big Think. February 15, 2014. Web. <>.

(3) Galileo Galilei.” The New Encyclopædia Britannica: Macropædia. Encyclopædia Britannica (1991).


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