Andrea enters, carrying Galileo’s breakfast. He discusses the need for Galileo to pay the milkman, advice which Galileo jokingly dismisses.
A very mundane opening, given the audience surely knows something about how famous Galileo becomes.
Galileo shows Andrea a wooden model of the Ptolemaic astronomical system. The model shows the Earth at the center of the universe, with a series of eight crystal spheres holding the Sun, Moon, and planets. Andrea is impressed with the model but says that it feels too “shut in.” Galileo agrees, adding that more people are beginning to feel the same way, as humans discover more and more about their world. Sailing the seas has taught mankind just how large the world is, and he suspects that astronomy will come to similar conclusions about the universe soon.
This moment secures, early on, just how confident Galileo is in the ability of common sense and rationality to overcome years of received wisdom. Even Andrea, who has no formal education whatsoever, understands intuitively that something is wrong with the Ptolemaic system. Yet, Galileo seems to understand very little about just how hard (and even treacherous) the journey to enlightenment will be.
Galileo talks briefly about some of mankind’s recent discoveries. He broadly mentions the finding of new continents. But he also talks about a time when he personally witnessed workers abandon a millennia-old way of moving building materials after recognizing how they might do it more efficiently. Galileo tells Andrea that things which have never been doubted before are now beginning to be doubted. This doubt, Galileo says, will usher in a broad exchange of ideas for everyone, such that even the sons of fishmongers will be well-educated.
Galileo’s belief that “even the sons of fishmongers” would eventually be well-educated seems like a pejorative against such people. But it’s not that Galileo looks down on fishmongers or their children. Rather, he recognizes that such highbrow concerns as the motion of planets have rarely affected them. He believes his new discoveries, however, will change everyone’s life.
Galileo then quizzes Andrea on his lessons, specifically about the teachings of Copernicus, who argued that the Sun is motionless at the center of the solar system (rather than the Earth being at the center of the universe). Andrea says that he’s too young to understand it all and, anyway, it must be wrong. He can see that the sun moves through the sky, so it’s impossible that it sits motionless. Galileo starts to show him how the sun might appear to move while remaining stationary, but they are interrupted by Mrs. Sarti.
Andrea unconsciously uses Galileo’s own tool (of proof through observation) against him in this childlike questioning of authority. By showing how easily observational data can be misinterpreted, Andrea confirms the necessity of the complex mathematics that back up Galileo’s theories. He also shows how “catching” Galileo’s tendency to question perceived wisdom is, too.
Sarti chastises both Galileo and Andrea for discussing such blasphemies as the Earth revolving around the Sun. She tells Galileo that a young student, Ludovico, has come. Ludovico wants Galileo to tutor him, and Mrs. Sarti thinks it’s imperative that Galileo do so, since they’re short on money for milk.
The quick movement from grandiose discussions of the universe and celestial bodies to pedestrian concerns about milk money is quite striking. It helps the audience to understand why Galileo cares so little about such trivial concerns.
After Mrs. Sarti leaves, Galileo again tries to demonstrate to Andrea. This time, he uses an apple to represent the Earth. Andrea, however, doesn’t like Galileo using these sorts of examples, as they don’t work when he tries to replicate them for his mother. Nevertheless, Galileo persists, showing him not only how the sun might appear to move while stationary, but also why he doesn’t fall off the Earth as it spins. Andrea expresses confidence that he can teach this lesson to his mother.
In the bible (Genesis 3:5), Satan tells Eve that if she eats the forbidden apple, she’ll be like God—“knowing both good and evil.” Brecht uses Galileo’s apple in much the same way. But, because Galileo is the main character and has the audience’s sympathies, he doesn’t pick up all the negative associations that Satan does.
Ludovico enters with Mrs. Sarti and Galileo quizzes him. He discovers that Ludovico has been sent by his mother, who wishes him to have some tutoring in the sciences. Galileo’s name is famous throughout Europe, and she wants her son to have the best. Ludovico, however, says he prefers horses to science—Galileo punishes him for this by raising the estimated cost of his tuition. Galileo also informs Andrea that he will no longer be able to tutor him, since Ludovico can pay and Andrea can’t. Andrea leaves with the apple.
This is the flipside to the absurdity of Galileo interrupting his work to earn milk money. Andrea has an inquisitive mind and a natural talent for astronomy, but he is forced out because he lacks money. Meanwhile, Ludovico, who has no interest whatsoever in astronomy, is tutored (almost against his will) by the world’s greatest authority on the subject.
Ludovico begins describing how bad at understanding science he is. In doing so, he offhandedly mentions a new invention in Amsterdam that confused him totally: the telescope. Galileo asks him to describe the invention in detail, which Ludovico does, and Galileo sketches it. Before Ludovico leaves, Galileo agrees to take him on as a student. He then sends Mrs. Sarti off with a prescription for two glass lenses he wants made.
Ludovico unwittingly enters into the global marketplace of ideas that Galileo discussed with Andrea earlier. This is one of many moments in the play where the right people being at the right place at the right time changes the course of history, through the simple act of sharing ideas freely.
Directly after, the Procurator of Padua University arrives to tell Galileo that the raise he requested has been denied. Galileo responds that he can’t live off of what the University is paying him. The Procurator wonders why Galileo doesn’t take on private pupils, given his excellent reputation. Galileo has, but this additional work leaves him with no time to read, think, or experiment. The Procurator counters that, though Padua may pay less than other employers, it at least offers freedom from religious persecution. This, however, matters little to Galileo, as his current workload doesn’t allow him the time to think. He also reminds the Procurator that it was the University that handed over Giordano Bruno to be burned at the stake for advocating for Copernicus.
While sharing ideas might be enough to change the course of history, Brecht always builds in moments such as these, where everyday concerns like money stop progress. Here, he creates a similar obstacle out of persecution. Thus Galileo must teach mundane things or starve. He must also teach the correct things or burn. It is a testament to Galileo’s status as a great man that he consistently pushes beyond these barriers to think new (and even dangerous) thoughts.
The Procurator laments that a great intellectual like Galileo didn’t choose a more profitable field of study, like philosophy. He suggests that if Galileo needs more money, he’ll have to invent something useful, like the proportional compass he recently created. Galileo calls such work “kids’ stuff” and rejects it outright.
Though the study of philosophy probably was quite lucrative in Galileo’s day, the idea that philosophy would be more profitable than a career in the hard sciences is as laughable today as it was in Brecht’s own time.
Andrea returns with the apple and the lenses Galileo requested from Mrs. Sarti. Galileo begins constructing a rudimentary telescope, while telling Andrea that he must stop telling others about the ideas of Copernicus, as they’ll get him into trouble. Andrea tells Galileo that he’d like to be a physicist when he grows up; his mentor approves. At the end of the scene, Galileo hands a hastily assembled prototype telescope to Andrea, who is able to see great distances with it. Galileo believes the “invention” will more than make up for his denied raise.
Readers might be taken aback by Galileo’s carefree theft of intellectual property here. Such a reaction is understandable, yet problematic on three counts. First, great men are in no way required to be moral ones (indeed, many might be said to be wholly amoral). Secondly, Galileo believes in the open exchange of ideas. Lastly, he surely believes that he would have invented the telescope himself, if he only had the time.