Effect Measure

Galileo in the Digital Age

I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and think about things. In fact I frequently have a problem with early waking. I think it’s age related. In any event, one of the things I sometimes think about (mainly I think about my research or something connected with it, which is one reason why I have trouble going back to sleep) is what side of the great scientific controversies I’d be on. Like Galileo. Everyone thinks of his problem with the Church (allegedly) because he championed heliocentrism (the true story seems to be more political, complicated and nuanced, but I’ll leave that for others). But what I think about is his claim that “objects in motion tend to remain in motion” — which of course they don’t, at least not that anyone on earth has seen. There’s this little matter of friction, so no one had ever seen it happen. Would I have bought it? It was an inspired and fruitful abstraction and the cornerstone in one way or another of a good chunk of classical physics (Newton’s First Law). I thought about it again today — this time during my usual waking hours — because of news reports that Galileo had finally entered the Digital Age. Literally.

I’m not talking about Galileo’s ideas or his books or his image in pixels. I’m talking about Galileo in the form of his digits:

Two fingers cut from the hand of Italian astronomer Galileo nearly 300 years ago have been rediscovered more than a century after they were last seen, an Italian museum director said Monday.

They were purchased recently at an auction by a person who brought them to the Museum of the History of Science in Florence, suspecting what they were, museum director Paolo Galluzzi said.

Three fingers were cut from Galileo’s hand in March 1737 when his body was moved from a temporary monument to its final resting place in Florence, Italy. The last tooth remaining in his lower jaw was also taken, Galluzzi said.

Two of the fingers and the tooth ended up in a sealed glass jar that disappeared sometime after 1905.

There had been “no trace” of them for more than 100 years until the person who bought them in the auction came to the museum recently. (Richard Allen Greene, CNN)

Removing body parts with special significance from famous figures, like saints, was a common practice. It’s being speculated that these are the fingers he used to hold his mighty pen. It would be interesting to know if Casanova’s corpse has all its parts intact. And let’s face it. If someone is going to give you the finger, who better than Galileo? Certainly better than another driver whose car, once in motion, intends to remain in motion regardless of lane.

The museum already has a third Galilean finger and we should congratulate them on this coup. In fact, let’s all give them a hand.


  1. #1 Cuttlefish
    November 28, 2009

    The mystery no longer lingers:
    Found, at last, two missing fingers.
    They both belonged, as did one tooth,
    To Galileo. That’s the truth.

    The heretic had made a fuss
    Supporting old Copernicus;
    The Earth, he said, each year will run
    An orbit ’round our yellow sun;

    A statement, in The Church’s sight,
    That could not possibly be right–
    So Galileo swore he lied,
    And nine years later, up and died.

    Nine decades later, scientists
    With strange things on their “must do” lists
    Removed some fingers, teeth, and bones,
    Then laid him back beneath the stones.

    For years, his parts, though very old,
    Were bartered, traded, bought and sold,
    Until, in nineteen-hundred five,
    Expected parts did not arrive.

    The trading, then, went underground—
    Until this year. Now, they’ve been found!
    Next year, his fans may go and see ‘em
    At Florence’s History of Science Museum.


  2. #2 revere
    November 28, 2009

    Cuttlefish: LOL. Very, very impressive. Keep in motion. You could do verse.

    After thought: It is truly motion in poetry.

  3. #3 tymbuktu
    November 28, 2009

    Ha! Great bookending of the piece.

  4. #4 J. J.
    November 28, 2009

    Since Galileo’s parts have been honored in the above excellent verse, here’s a limerick in a rather similiar vein (no pun intended) that’s been around a while, on somewhat the same subject. Perhaps Casanova’s unit is in the same place, as yet undiscovered.

    In an old mausoleum colossal
    An explorer discovered a fossil
    He could tell by the bend
    And the knob on the end
    Twas the peeter of Paul the Apostle

  5. #5 Paula
    November 28, 2009

    Nice, Cuttlefish and J.J.! And much more fun than the trollers’ postings.
    Well, these are from college days, but hey–
    Descartes spent 16 hours in bed
    and he feared the Dread Deceiver,
    but God is there, spreading percepts everywhere,
    So hoorah! for the Great Perceiver.
    Help, help, I’m an epsilon
    enroute to my limit–can’t I go on? [sometimes written as “must. . .?”]

  6. #6 Paula
    November 28, 2009

    Cuttlefish, have you some poetry elsewhere?

  7. #7 george.w
    November 28, 2009

    Cuttlefish lives here:
    …and has a book out, which I unreservedly recommend.

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