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SUBJECTS — Biography; Science-Technology; World/Italy & the Scientific Revolution;


MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Respect.

AGE: 8 – 13; MPAA Rating — G;

Drama; 1997; 56 minutes; Color.

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.


Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.


Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.


This film is one of the Inventors’ Specials, an award-winning series designed to introduce children to great scientists and inventors. The story centers on a fictionalized presentation of the relationship between Galileo and his student, Cosimo de Medici II, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Major events in Galileo’s career are also depicted in the film. The movie describes many of the important scientific advances made by Galileo, including the discovery of inertia and that the motion of bodies can be the result of two different forces acting on them simultaneously. Galileo was also the first to observe that bodies of different weight fall to earth at the same speed. He improved the telescope and pioneered its use for astronomical investigation.


Selected Awards:

1999 First Place “Gold Camera Award” from the U.S. International Film and Video Festival; 1998 KIDS FIRST! Endorsement from the Coalition for Quality Children’s Media; 1999 Emmy Awards: Outstanding Sound Mixing; 1999 Emmy Awards Nominations: Outstanding Children’s Special; Outstanding Performance in a Children’s Special; Outstanding Single-Camera Editing; Nominated for two 1999 Golden Sheaf Awards at the Yorktown Short Film & Video Festival; Nominated for the 1999 Banff Rockie Award.


Featured Actors:

Michael Suchanek and Kenneth Welsh.



David Devine.


“Galileo: On the Shoulders of Giants” will acquaint children with Galileo Galilei, his discoveries, and his time. It is chock full of delightfully presented lessons in physics, astronomy, the scientific method, and history.




Tell your child that Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) is regarded by many as the founder of modern science. Before his time, knowledge of the physical world was based on the teachings of religion and the observations and untested theories of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. Galileo insisted on verifying theory with experiments. He recognized that mathematics was the language through which nature could be explained. He improved the telescope and turned it to the heavens, which had been previously thought of as the realm of God. He saw mountains and valleys on the earth’s moon and that Jupiter has its own moons. He saw millions of stars that could not be seen with the naked eye. Galileo’s discoveries include the law of inertia and the law of motion that bodies fall toward the earth at the same rate despite differences in weight. He discovered that the motion of bodies can be the result of two different forces acting upon them.

Tell your child that Galileo’s discoveries thrilled the known world and he was considered a great scientist during his life. However, his discoveries made the Catholic Church very nervous. Galileo was investigated by the Inquisition for heresy several times and finally he was required to recant some of his findings. Because of his stature as a scientist, the Inquisition could not burn him at the stake. He lived the end of his life under house arrest for the crime of trying to describe how nature worked.


Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) is regarded by many historians as the founder of modern science. Before his time, knowledge of the physical world was based on the teachings of religion and the observations and untested theories of the classical Greek philosophers. In most scientific matters the writings of Aristotle, who lived nineteen centuries before Galileo, were regarded as authoritative. Ptolemy, who worked only five centuries after Aristotle, was thought to have brought astronomy to its highest level.

Aristotelian science relied on observation and reason. For example, Aristotle observed that heavier objects appeared to fall to earth faster than lighter ones. This result also seemed logical. (It still appears intuitively correct to many of us.) Aristotle saw no need to conduct tests to see if this reasoned conclusion from observed facts was accurate. Galileo, however, used experiments, performed as precisely as possible, to test all hypotheses. In the case of the law of falling bodies, he found that objects of different weights fall to earth at the same rate and with the same acceleration.

Galileo relied on mathematics as the language through which nature could be explained. He wrote:

[The laws of science are] written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.

While others before Galileo had used experimentation to discover facts about nature, Galileo’s addition of mathematical analysis and his insistence on the rigorous application of both experimentation and mathematical analysis, created what we now call the scientific method. Galileo’s strengths as a publicist for his new views and his convincing logic sealed the downfall of Aristotelian science. Galileo’s improvement of the telescope and his resulting observations of the heavenly bodies led to the rejection of Ptolemaic astronomy and to the adoption of the Copernican view that the earth revolves around the sun and spins on its axis.

Galileo’s discoveries and scientific advances are legion and include: (1) the improvement of the telescope, its use for astronomy, and the resulting discoveries that the moon has mountains and valleys, that Jupiter has moons (he discovered the first four); and that there are more stars than can be seen by the naked eye; (2) the law of motion that bodies fall toward the earth at the same rate despite differences in weight, (3) the discovery that the motion of bodies can be the result of two different forces acting upon them; (4) the concept of inertia (this became Newton’s First Law of Motion); (5) the discovery that the trajectories of projectiles are parabolic; and (6) the realization that pendulums of equal lengths have identical times of oscillation. For more on Galileo’s telescope click here.

Before Galileo, the primary use of the telescope had been as a toy or to enable soldiers and sailors to see distant objects as if they were close. Galileo turned the telescope to the heavens, hitherto the exclusive province of God and the angels. In the Sixteenth Century, it was presumptuous, possibly blasphemous and certainly revolutionary, to use an instrument to spy into the realm of God.

Galileo was a master instrument maker. He made great improvements to the telescope increasing its power many times over. He created a compass. Galileo invented other devices to measure his experiments or to make observations but many were not accurate enough for the scientific application. These included a microscope, a clock and a thermoscope (forerunner of the thermometer). Precise clocks and thermometers and the use of the microscope as a powerful tool for scientific discovery would have to wait for others who could build on Galileo’s work.

The Law of Falling Bodies states that the space traversed by a body falling to the earth is directly proportional to the square of the time of the fall. The Galilean equivalent to this law states that in equal times the distances traversed by a falling body follow the progression 1, 3, 5, 7, …. See an animated demonstration of the law of falling bodies on an inclined plane. The reason that we intuitively think that lighter objects fall more slowly than heavy objects is two-fold. First, we have observed very light objects, such as feathers and snowflakes, falling slowly because of friction and wind resistance. Second, we confuse force with speed. Heavier objects fall with more force because the weight is a component of force. However, speed and force are different measures.

Ptolemy was the authority on astronomy in the Ancient World. He maintained that the earth was the center of the universe and that it was stationary and immovable. The stars, the planets, the moon, and the sun revolved around the earth in celestial spheres. Everything in the heavens was perfect and unchanging while the earth was corrupt. It had been adopted by the Church as accurately describing the work of God. Any challenge to it was considered heresy.

Nicolas Copernicus (1473 – 1543) was a Polish cleric who used his free time to make observations of the heavens. Working before Galileo, and therefore without a telescope, Copernicus made detailed measurements of the stars and the planets. He theorized that the earth rotated on its axis once a day and revolved around the sun once each year, a fact which contradicted Ptolemy and Aristotle. Copernicus published his work just before he died. Thus, he could not be persecuted by the Inquisition. His work was later branded as heresy by the Church. It was Galileo’s observations through the telescope that provided the proof of Copernicus’ theories.

Galileo’s discoveries and his advocacy of the scientific method were giant and essential steps in the secularization of knowledge. So long as the search for knowledge was focused on religious subjects and was required to conform to centuries-old church doctrine, the modern age, with its scientific advances and the higher standard of living, was impossible.

The Inquisition was a permanent arm of the Catholic Church charged with the protection of its doctrines. The Inquisition sought out and prosecuted heretics. The penalty for heresy was often death. By the Sixteenth Century, the learning of Aristotle and Ptolemy had been incorporated into church doctrine.

Galileo’s challenge to Aristotle and Ptolemy was welcomed by many but it made others extremely uncomfortable. The Inquisition had been created by people who wanted to prevent challenges to existing beliefs such as the questions raised by Galileo. In the film, the people who resisted change and new ideas are personified (and ridiculed) in the character of Mr. Columbo.

Throughout his career as a scientist, Galileo tried to both placate and work around the Inquisition. His great stature as a world-renowned scientist gave him some protection. Nonetheless, he was investigated several times. In 1616, he was ordered not to teach the Copernican theory. In an effort to evade this edict, Galileo obtained a letter from a friendly Cardinal interpreting the order to mean that he could not hold or defend the theory. He then wrote a book called Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic & Copernican in which the Copernican system was ostensibly treated as a mere hypothesis. But the arguments for the Copernican system, based primarily on Galileo’s own astronomical discoveries, were stressed while the arguments against it were placed in the mouths of characters who were ridiculed throughout the book. The work was passed by the Florentine censors before it was published. However, the censors at the Vatican saw through the device and started proceedings against Galileo. (There is another view of this trial as the action by a Pope (who knew that Galileo was right) to establish his authority by ejecting a favorite courtier.

Galileo was never tortured and after his indictment, he was usually permitted to live with wealthy patrons. Only for a short time was he confined in the Inquisition building, and then he was given a comfortable apartment. At his trial, Galileo produced the letter from the friendly Cardinal to rebut the charges against him. With the parties at an impasse, an agreement was made. Galileo, no doubt mindful of what had happened to Giordano Bruno (see below), agreed to recant. His punishment was house arrest for the remainder of his life as a “vehemently” suspected heretic. Galileo continued to make new discoveries in astronomy and several other sciences until his death.

In 1992, some three centuries later, at the urging of Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church “rehabilitated” Galileo. (Some said that by this action it was the Church that was rehabilitated.) On this occasion the Pope said:

There exist two realms of knowledge, one which has its source in Revelation and one which reason can discover by its own power. To the latter belong especially the experimental sciences and philosophy. The distinction between the two realms of knowledge ought not to be understood as opposition. … [The] intelligibility, attested to by the marvelous discoveries of science and technology, leads us, in the last analysis, to that transcendent and primordial Thought imprinted on all things.

While the alleged conflict between science and religious doctrine has been laid to rest by most modern religions, some vestiges of the debate still rage. The best example in our society is the creationism vs. evolution controversy. See Learning Guide to Inherit The Wind.

Giordano Bruno was an Italian philosopher and astronomer. Bruno rejected traditional earth-centered (geocentric) astronomy in favor of a theory of an infinite universe with many sun-centered solar systems. He was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in the year 1600 because of his scientific and religious views. (The execution of Bruno is shown at the beginning of the film.)

The title of this film comes from a statement by Isaac Newton who was born the year that Galileo died: “If I have seen further … it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” One of the giants Newton referred to was Galileo. See How Newton Built on Galileo’s Ideas. Copernicus and Kepler were two others.

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1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


2. If the earth spins, why aren’t we (and everything else on the surface of the earth) spun off into space?


3. Why did Galileo insist upon experimentation as the route to knowledge?


4. If you were in Italy and wanted to use a building to demonstrate that heavy objects fall to earth at the same rate as lighter objects, what famous structure would you use?

Suggested Response:

Myth has it that Galileo demonstrated this experiment by dropping cannon balls of different weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa.


5. Did the hammer fall as fast on the moon as it would have on the earth? Justify your answer.


6. Both the hammer and the feather are affected by wind resistance and friction as they fall to earth. Why is the feather’s rate of fall affected more than that of the hammer? [Hint: use Newton’s Second Law of Motion.]



1. Describe the relationship between Galileo and his brother.



2. What did the Galileo character mean when he told Cosimo’s mother that: “I promise I will turn your son into a questioner and not an acceptor”? What is the difference between the two?


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)


1. Galileo didn’t stand up to the Inquisition and the people who thought that his discoveries were heresy. Instead, as described in the Helpful Background section, he sought to evade the Inquisition but, learning from the experience of Giordano Bruno, finally recanted his belief in the Copernican system and in his scientific discoveries in order to save his life. In other words, he caved in to the threats of the Inquisition. Did Galileo do the right thing by not standing up for what he believed in? Did he violate the Pillar of Trustworthiness? For Galileo’s position one could make the following points: 1) it is nice to be able to keep on living; 2) no other living man could make the discoveries that Galileo could and his deal with the Inquisition permitted him to continue his scientific research. Are these just rationalizations?



(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)


2. What was the moral flaw in the way that the Catholic Church of the middle ages (and the Protestants as well) treated people who thought that the earth revolved around the sun? What motivated the Church to do this?


See Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


A. Separate the class into two groups. Have them imagine that they live in the early 1600s, when the doctrines of both science and religion state that the earth is the center of the universe, stationary and immovable. The stars, the planets, the moon and the sun revolve around the earth suspended in celestial spheres. Everything in the heavens is perfect and unchanging while the earth is corrupt. Have them imagine that this system, described by the ancient astronomer Ptolemy in the second century, C.E., has been accepted for more than 1400 years and has been written into the very doctrines of the church as accurately describing the work of God. Any challenge to it is considered heresy.


B. Then have your students imagine that they are hearing Galileo for the first time, saying that: “There are more stars than you ever imagined in the skies; some of the stars move; Jupiter has moons that revolve around it and therefore the earth is not the only center of movement in the Universe; the moon is not a perfect celestial sphere but has mountains and valleys like the earth; the phases of Venus, when seen through the telescope, demonstrate that it revolves around the sun. Copernicus was correct. The earth does move around the sun. It also spins on its own axis. The proof is here. Just look through my telescope!”


C. If you believed Galileo, what would these revelations do to your view of the world? If you were a churchman what would you do?


D. Compare the changes brought about by the following events with the changes brought about by Galileo’s discoveries in terms of: (a) the way people look at the world and (b) the way that people live:

The American Revolution;

The invention of the computer from the beginning through the invention of the Internet;

The invention of the wheel;

The invention of language;

Newton’s laws of gravitation and of motion;

Einstein’s theory of relativity; and

Columbus’ voyage and the discovery of the New World.


Compare each of these events.



In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Galileo: Decisive Innovator by Michael Sharratt, Blackwell, Oxford, U.K. and Cambridge, USA, 1994;
  • The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin, Random House, New York, 1983, pp. 312 – 336;
  • Encyclopedia Britannica article on Galileo.

This Learning Guide was last updated on December 10, 2009.

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