What Hap­pens to Ul­tra Smart Kids When They Grow Up?

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SHORT AN­SWER: They change the world.

LONG AN­SWER: Many peo­ple think they are “ul­tra smart”. Some peo­ple even ex­hibit ex­treme in­tel­li­gence: they learn lots of lan­guages when they are chil­dren, they com­plete doc­tor­ates in their teens. Some be­come stock mar­ket bil­lion­aires, oth­ers get lost in academia, some seem to amount to noth­ing out of the or­di­nary at all.

These peo­ple are smart. But they are not ul­tra smart.

You know who was ul­tra smart? Galileo Galilei. How ul­tra smart? Put it this way: when we were uni, sit­ting in a bor­ing Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Ethics tute, watch­ing a light fit­ting swing back and forth, we were think­ing: “I am so bored. This lec­ture is crap.”

When Galileo sat in class watch­ing a chan­de­lier swing over­head, he thought: “My God. The Earth goes around the Sun!”


Okay the process had a few more steps than that - but this is just one ex­am­ple of the (lit­er­ally) in­cred­i­ble way Galileo’s mind worked, and how this made him not merely su­per, or mega, but ul­tra smart.

With the chan­de­liers thing, Galileo was ac­tu­ally do­ing medicine at the Univer­sity of Pisa at the time, and he no­ticed that the chan­de­liers swung back and forth at the same pace, no mat­ter how big the arc (that is, a wildly swing­ing chan­de­lier might take seven sec­onds to do a full swing, but so did a bare­ly­mov­ing chan­de­lier).

He rushed home and set up some pen­du­lums of equal length, and noted their be­hav­iour. This was in 1591, a full one hun­dred years be­fore Dutch math­e­ma­ti­cian Chris­ti­aan Huy­gens used pen­du­lums to cre­ate ac­cu­rate clocks. In 1591, Galileo was just 17.

Galileo then ac­ci­den­tally at­tended a ge­om­e­try lec­ture, changed his ma­jor to maths - which in the 1580s was about as rad­i­cal as chang­ing to In­ter­pre­tive Dance, in that he had to get his dad’s per­mis­sion - in­vented an early ther­mome­ter, in­vented and got mildly fa­mous for de­sign­ing a new kind of hy­dro­static bal­ance (an ex­tremely ac­cu­rate scale), got su­per-good at the lute, be­came an in­struc­tor at a pres­ti­gious art academy in Florence, and was ap­pointed Chair of Math­e­mat­ics at the Univer­sity of Pisa.

Na­tional- grade lutenist. Mod­er­ately fa­mous in­ven­tor. In­sti­tu­tional art ex­pert in chiaroscuro and per­spec­tive. Head of the school of math­e­mat­ics in Pisa. 1589.

Twenty-five years old.


Be­tween the ages of 25 and 46, Galileo moved to Padua and lec­tured in ge­om­e­try, me­chan­ics, and as­tron­omy, all while mak­ing fun­da­men­tal sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies, in­clud­ing the kine­mat­ics of mo­tion.

He also in­vented a new kind of mil­i­tary com­pass for gun­ners, which prob­a­bly saved a lot of lives on the side of whichever com­pli­cated city-state al­liance Galileo was part of at the time.

Oh and he also in­vented some tube thing. You know the thing. Looky-tube. Long-see-looky tube.

He rounded off this pe­riod of his life by dis­cov­er­ing the four big­gest moons of Jupiter, and mak­ing some re­ally wrong de­scrip­tions of Saturn and its “two side-by-side moons”. This was be­cause the piece of junk 15mm te­le­scope he threw to­gether from scratch couldn’t prop­erly re­solve the rings.

An­other of Galileo’s leaps of in­tu­ition oc­curred when he looked at the Moon through his te­le­scope, and re­alised the “scal­loped edge” along the shad­owed side was a moun­tain range stick­ing out at him.

How did he know the shapes were moun­tains? Be­cause he was so good at draw­ing chiaroscuro, which is all about light and shadow. Un­like most other early as­tronomers, Galileo’s artis­tic mind could imag­ine how he’d draw a grey moun­tain half-lost in black shadow point­ing straight up at him. See, art is rel­e­vant!


Be­cause no one is per­fect, Galileo then spent some time in­sist­ing the tides were caused by the ocean slosh­ing back and forth as the Earth or­bited the sun.

He made this er­ror be­cause he was try­ing to prove that the Earth or­bited the sun - which of course we now know for sure it does.

And this just goes to show that just be­cause a sci­en­tist in­ter­prets a bunch of data in­cor­rectly, it doesn’t mean his ba­sic premise is wrong… (hem hem, cli­mate change).

Dur­ing his 50s Galileo pub­lished a bunch of books and be­come the Catholic world's lead­ing philo­soph­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Math­e­mat­ics. Not the depart­ment of math­e­mat­ics at some pro­toI­tal­ian univer­sity, all Math­e­mat­ics. All of it. Dur­ing the 1620s, Galileo Galilei was Maths.

He also caught a glimpse of a com­pound mi­cro­scope at an

Galileo wasn't al­lowed to claim that he­lio­cen­trism was def­i­nitely real

ex­hi­bi­tion in Rome in 1624 and built a much im­proved ver­sion, prob­a­bly while si­mul­ta­ne­ously bust­ing out some re­ally awe­some licks on the lute.

Galileo did not in­vent the first mi­cro­scope but he was cer­tainly an alum of the in­sti­tu­tion (the Ac­cademia dei Lin­cei - go Lynxes!) that coined the names “te­le­scope” and “mi­cro­scope”. Since this was all Greek to ev­ery­one else, the names stuck.

In 1623, Galileo pub­lished The As­sayer, a neat lit­tle book that was well-re­ceived at the time and is to­day recog­nised as noth­ing less than one of the pi­o­neer­ing works of the sci­en­tific method.


Since by this point, do­ing any­thing else prob­a­bly seemed triv­ially easy, Galileo de­cided to round out the fi­nal phase of his in­cred­i­ble life of sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery with some­thing big. How big? Big, as in: tak­ing on the en­tire hu­man race and its be­lief that the Sun went around the Earth.

Ini­tially, Galileo had pa­pal ap­proval to pub­lish Di­a­logue Con­cern­ing the Two Chief

World Sys­tems, which was his the­ory of he­lio­cen­trism, which we now know to be cor­rect. Be­cause Pope Ur­ban VIII had just been elected and, some his­to­ri­ans be­lieve, was try­ing to show that the Vatican was down with all this new sci­ence stuff, and maybe if peo­ple talked about weird things like the sun be­ing the cen­tre of the uni­verse, they didn't need to be tor­tured and burned. Nec­es­sar­ily.

The only rule (well, not the only rule, but the most im­por­tant rule) was that Galileo wasn’t al­lowed to claim that he­lio­cen­trism was def­i­nitely real, he had to say it was just a the­ory.

At first ev­ery­thing was cool, but after the In­qui­si­tion’s book club fin­ished read­ing

Di­a­logue, things very quickly be­came not very cool at all.

Galileo was ac­cused of dis­obey­ing a di­rect Pa­pal in­junc­tion - the In­qui­si­tion re­minded him that he'd re­ceived an of­fi­cial warn­ing against pro­mot­ing he­lio­cen­trism as early as 1616. In 1633, after what was prob­a­bly a very shouty trial, Galileo was found guilty of heresy.

Any­one else would prob­a­bly have spent the rest of their lives in a dank cell, but this was Galileo Galilei. The In­qui­si­tion knew its lim­its. There’s burn­ing Tem­plars, there’s ex­pelling Jews, and then there’s putting ev­ery­one’s favourite maths geek in the hole.

Also, as heresy goes, Galileo did play it pretty cool. He was, after all, still a de­vout Catholic. And by stick­ing to the sci­ence and not ex­tend­ing his the­o­ries to a whole­sale de­nial of the Holy Trin­ity, the di­vin­ity of Christ, and the vir­gin­ity of Mary, Galileo was never on the hook to the same ex­tent as fel­low cos­mol­o­gist Gior­dano Bruno had been back in 1600. They burned him at the stake.

(In­ci­den­tally, the last per­son ex­e­cuted for heresy by the Catholic Church was Span­ish school­teacher Cayetano Ripoli, in


1826, for teach­ing kids that maybe, given the ev­i­dence, God doesn’t an­swer prayers.)

Any­way, after what was no doubt a very in­tense evening of le­gal wran­gling, Galileo’s sen­tence was com­muted to house ar­rest the very next day - 23 June 1633. He re­turned to his villa near Florence where he re­mained for the rest of his life. He went to­tally blind in 1638, and even­tu­ally died in 1642. In a world where sci­en­tists were as likely to be burned alive as they were to get ten­ure, Galileo had sur­vived for 78 years. Galileo did all this, lived his whole life - made his dis­cov­er­ies and built his in­ven­tions, fought the en­tire Catholic Church, got threat­ened with phys­i­cal tor­ture by the ac­tual In­qui­si­tion - all while sup­port­ing his fam­ily and run­ning a bunch of com­pli­cated busi­nesses. He also had to deal with the, uh, so­cial is­sues of fa­ther­ing three chil­dren out of wed­lock, and he had to pay for his sis­ters’ dowries from his own per­sonal for­tune after his fa­ther died.. And on top of all this, he had a brother who was a stereo­typ­i­cal drunk bank­rupt id­iot who kept ask­ing him for money. That brother's name, be­cause the uni­verse is hi­lar­i­ous, was Michelan­gelo. So yeah. If you’re stuck on a flight to Lon­don sat next to a guy who says he got a PhD at age 18 and has in­vested in cryp­tocur­rency, and he think’s he’s a su­per­ge­nius gaming the sys­tem be­cause he’s made a bit of money… you’re prob­a­bly jus­ti­fied in telling him to get some per­spec­tive. Galileo could teach him that per­spec­tive. Be­cause he lec­tured in per­spec­tive at the Ac­cademia delle Arti del Disegno, in Re­nais­sance Florence. Smart kid.

The mil­i­tary Sec­tor was in­vented si­mul­ta­ne­ously by sev­eral peo­ple, but Galileo was smart enough to also mar­ket it. He adapted the de­vice later for use by civil sur­vey­ors, earn­ing him even more sales (and cash).

Galileo didn’t in­vent the mi­cro­scope, but he did re­fine and pop­u­larise it. The name “mi­cro­scope” was a de­lib­er­ate pun on “te­le­scope”. It’s a te­le­scope for see­ing re­ally small things, ged­dit?

Galileo’s first te­le­scope mag­ni­fied ob­jects by about 30 times, was blurry and in­ac­cu­rate, but it still changed the world.

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