Let poor old Galileo rest in peace

For the staggering sum of around $400,000, a group of contemporary body-snatchers is planning to open Galileo’s tomb in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence.

Mar 1st, 2009
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For the staggering sum of around $400,000, a group of contemporary body-snatchers is planning to open Galileo’s tomb in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence.

By Jeff Bairstow

You may not have realized it yet, but 2009 has officially been declared the International Year of Astronomy by the United Nations. This year was chosen because it marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s significant observations that confirmed the Copernican theory that the planets of our solar system orbit the Sun rather than the Earth. Galileo is often referred to as the “father” of astronomy.

So one could be forgiven for thinking that memorializing Galileo’s discoveries would be enough for your typical astronomer or space freak. But, noooo! Now there are big plans afoot to exhume Galileo’s remains this year in order to grab some DNA samples. I kid you not! And in Italy where the simple act of buying a bus pass can take weeks of effort. I don’t see even the current crop of Vatican bureaucrats falling over themselves to give carte blanche to exhume “Who?”

For the staggering sum of around $400,000, a group of contemporary body-snatchers is planning to open Galileo’s tomb in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. Leading this ghoulish effort is one Dr. Paolo Galluzzi, the highly esteemed director of Florence’s world-renowned Museum of the History of Science. (Until now, that is).

This delightful little museum–to which I definitely recommend a visit if you are ever in Florence–already has lots of fascinating Galileo artifacts. The exhibits include a somewhat bizarre relic said to be one of Galileo’s fingers. This finger is not enough for Dr. Galluzzi and his English coconspirator, Dr. Peter Watson, of Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, England. Nothing short of a complete set of skeletal remains will satisfy these two ghouls in their DNA hunt.

It is thought that Galileo was buried in Santa Croce more than 100 years after his death in 1642 because the Vatican’s powerful cardinals initially opposed his interment in a consecrated church. It appears that Galileo’s remains may be buried along with two other persons, one of whom may be Vincenzo Viviani, a onetime student of Galileo. The other remains may be those of one of Galileo’s three illegitimate children, a nun who died when she was only 33. DNA tests would confirm whether indeed the bones are those of Sister Maria Celeste.

By the way, Sister Maria’s letters to her father are recorded in the 1999 best-seller, Galileo’s Daughter, by historian Dava Sobel. I strongly recommend this wonderful book (especially for fathers of girls) that is still available (used) on Amazon.

But, let’s get back to the proposed Galileo exhumation. Evidently, these eminent scientists want to prove that Galileo had chronic eye diseases that may have caused him to make significant errors in his observations. Whoop-de-do! We do know that Galileo went blind in his later years. Do we really need to know more?

One of the researcher/grave-robber team is reported to have said, “A DNA test will allow us to determine to what measure the pathology of the eye may have ‘tricked’ [Galileo],” The investigator went on to say, “If we discover the pathology suffered, we can formulate a mathematical model that simulates the effects it would have had on what he saw and using the same type of telescope he used we can get closer to what he actually saw.” Got that?

In my view, old GG had a tough enough time publishing his two key books on astronomy and the movement of the planets. Twice, the heretical Galileo was summoned to appear in front of the feared Roman Inquisition, probably the toughest book club readers of all time. The mere hint of apostasy was enough to ensure the author of a new book a few jolly hours stretched out on the Inquisition’s rack. And these guys from the Inquisition rarely took “No!” for an answer. Surely the time has come to let Galileo Galilei continue his well-deserved rest undisturbed by DNA harvesters. Requiscat in Pace.

As for the group of misguided Italian and British scientists, maybe there’s another useless project you guys can conjure up to celebrate 400 years of astronomy? Something involving the Large Hadron Collider, perhaps. Or, maybe a big party on the Hubble Space Telescope? It’s due for a major service this year.

Buona fortuna, ragazzi!

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Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor

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