Scientists Want to Exhume Galileo’s Body


This is not tops on my list as a good way to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy. Italian and British scientists want to exhume the body of 16th century astronomer Galileo Galilei in order to determine if his severe vision problems may have affected some of his findings. The scientists said DNA tests would help answer some unresolved questions about the health of the man known as the father of astronomy, whom the Vatican condemned for teaching that the Earth revolves around the sun. “If we knew exactly what was wrong with his eyes we could use computer models to recreate what he saw in his telescope,” said Paolo Galluzzi, director of the Museum of History and Science in Florence, the city where Galileo is buried.

Galileo, who lived from 1564 to 1642, was known to have problems with his eyes during his later years, and was totally blind for the last two years of his life. It has long been speculated that he damaged his eyes by looking at the sun through a telescope. But, now some scientists suspect Galileo may have had a form of glaucoma.

“There were periods when he saw very well and periods when he did not see very well,” said Dr. Peter Watson, president of the Academia Ophthalmologica Internationalis and consultant to Addenbrooke’s University Hospital, Cambridge.

One of the “errors” that Galileo made, which Galluzzi suspects may have been because of bad eyesight, is that he thought Saturn’s rings were “handles” or large moons on either side of the planet. Galileo wrote, “I have observed the highest planet [Saturn] to be tripled-bodied. This is to say that to my very great amazement Saturn was seen to me to be not a single star, but three together, which almost touch each other”.

With a 20-power telescope and his eyes in bad shape he might have mistaken Saturn’s rings as two moons on each side.

Or would anyone who had never seen rings around a planet before, using a first-generation telescope think the same?

If the nature of Galileo’s illness was known, Galluzzi said a mathematical model could be simulated to show what Galileo saw through his telescope. “We only have sketches of what he saw. If we were able to see what he saw that would be extraordinary,” Galluzzi said.

Galluzzi added he is waiting for permission from Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica, where Galileo is buried, to exhume the body and then would form a committee of historians, scientists and doctors to oversee the project.

What do you think? Should Galileo be exhumed in the name of science, or should the Father of Astronomy be allowed to rest in peace?

Source: Reuters

38 Replies to “Scientists Want to Exhume Galileo’s Body”

  1. The idea is a travesty! Galileo is turning over in his grave (perhaps with his beloved daughter, Maria Celeste).

    What possible benefit is there to speculate about the presumed deficiencies of Galileo’s eyesight? Isn’t the point here to acknowledge that given the relatively crude instruments he routinely used to observe the planets, the moon and the sun, with their narrow fields of view and significant glass aberrations– it is remarkable that Galileo could discern anything of value at all!

    The wealth of detail in his sunspot drawings alone, are enough evidence that Galileo’s eyesight was remarkable.

    Let the man rest in peace, on this the 400th anniversary of his earth-shattering discoveries. Let’s honor and celebrate the contributions he’s made to society instead of insulting his memory.

  2. This is interesting. I’ve always assumed that Galileo’s original report of the rings being separate bodies was – as you remarked – because nobody had ever seen rings around a planet before. I guess I’m of the opinion that maybe we should let ol’ Galileo be – the mathematical modeling of what someone may have seen with a certain visual impairment sounds rather unreliable. For instance, if the severity of his illness varied (especially if he was using any “treatments” at the time), then it would follow that how well he could see would be a function of that difference. Matching this to sketches, which are also a function of how good an artist he was, and how well he represented what he saw, seems pretty dubious.

    Great article as always, Nancy!

  3. Personally, I do not see any interest in finding to what degree is the misintepretation to be attributed to his sight, and to what degree to the telescope.

  4. Well he is dead, so I don’t think it really affects him one way or the other – I don’t go in for all of this ‘respect for the dead’ business, beyond respecting their memory – a dead body is simply a collection of matter no different in essence from any other.

    However, that does not mean that it should go ahead. Others may attach more significance than I to his remains, with some perhaps viewing such a project as desecration or ‘not letting him rest in peace’. That issue alone means that the project should be given careful consideration.

    And what is the real benefit? Who really cares what his actual views through the scope were like, beyond a mild curiosity? It may add in some small way to the history of science, but it certainly doesn’t add anything to science itself. It seems to simply be the pet project of the researcher in question, designed merely to satisfy his own personal curiosity.

    In my view, it’s not really a bad thing to do, but it does seem to be a rather pointless thing to do.

  5. Waddell Robey Says:
    January 22nd, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    “This is not science, this is scurrilous behavior.”

    P.S. – nice use of the word scurrilous. I’m always looking for an excuse to drop that little gem.

  6. As a physicist, I’ve always been offended with headlines like this or with statements in articles like “scientists say …”. While it only
    requires two scientists to be gramatically correct, it has the disingenuous effect of lumping all scientists together. You never see
    headlines like “Village idiots want to jump off a cliff”.

  7. What does this achieve? How could it advance scientific knowledge or insight?

    This is just historical verification, taken to a needless extreme.

    Determining whether his poor eyesight was glaucoma or sun-blindness is not worth stripping him of his dignity.

  8. Golly. So the last 300 years of astronomy could be wrong? This is a big embarrassment to the IAU – suppose it turns out that Ganymede never really existed, or that objects of different densities fall at different speeds.

    On the bright side, cranks now have to admit their vision is defective.

  9. They have his drawings of his interpretation of what he saw, that should be as good or better than a computer model. There are reasons to exhume a body but this has not even the slightest possibility of being one of them. I would be extremely surprised and disappointed if it is even allowed. These people need to look else where for their grant money.

  10. Leave him alone. It won’t make much difference, scientifically, one way or the other.

  11. Everyone that wants to dig Galileo up should get two weeks Motivation Platoon.

    What a horrible thing to want to do! Let Galileo rest in peace. Amen.

  12. This topic is ridiculous. Galileo Galilei has been dead and rotted for over 300 years and if any scientist thinks there will be anything left of his eyes to examine, then they are bigger fools than I gave them credit for.

  13. So, now scientists think they are gods because that have computers and ‘think” they can recreate what someone saw 400 years ago? Give it a rest!
    We have his sketches if you want to see what he saw. Obviously the ring plane of Saturn was similar to what it is now or close to it, that can be calulated and with the telescope he had at the time and his notes, this is not rocket science. Let’s not waste time and money to do such things to such a great man. Please!

  14. “16th century astronomer Galileo Galilei”?
    He died in 1642 and we remember him because of his scientific works from not the 16th, but the 17th century.

  15. Exhuming the great man will do nothing to forward our understanding of the universe. It will only anger many people and turn them against science. At a time when our activities are destroying the planet and few students want to become scientists and engineers, we can do without adverse reactions to the activities scientists.

  16. how long do you get to rest in peace before your body becomes public property? 100 yrs? 1000? why stop there, there are too many dead bodies doing nothing but sitting there rotting. put them to use.

  17. Can see the point. !!!! what if they really find how Galileu’s eyes were ? Good or bad it will not change anything….

  18. Let him rest in peace. What does it add to science if they manage somehow to “recreate” his eye defects – if any. This is utter nonsense and non-science.

  19. Requiscat in Pace! Let Galileo rest in peace.

    Perhaps astronomers, who appear to have too much time on their hands, should reconvene and exhume Pluto from the depths of the demoted planets and restore it to its rightful status as one of the planets in our solar system.

  20. In the name of science?
    What difference will knowing what afflicted his eyes make to astronomy, physics, or even to medicine in the 21st century?

    I’d call it “in the name of self-glorification of somebody who wants to show off what amazing things they can do”.

    I recommend spending the budget this project would cost on telescopes and spectroscopes for schools in under-privileged neighbourhoods, in the name of science… 😉

  21. *Sighs* Yet “another” piece of idiocy from the “Let’s Do Something Really Dumb Department”! So the guy *may* have had bad eyes! I do and so do a LOT of people! Yet they contribute to all sorts of Scientific endeavors. But then, maybe they should start doing the same thing to others to determine what was “wrong” with them. Sheesh!

    You’re VERY correct Ray! This IS non-science, let alone plain stupid.

    Let his remains R-E-S-T!

  22. I think he has already suffered enough because of the “scientists” of his time. Maybe today “scientists” have nothing better to do? Leave him alone, please!

  23. Isn’t it interesting how emotion can cloud our scientific judgement?

    I would suggest that most people commenting here would describe themselves as “scientists” and would approve of almost any endeavour which furthers our knowledge provided that no sentient being is harmed. The suggestion regarding Galileo’s eyes would, it seems, do that.

    However – and here’s the odd part – you’re all advocating that we let him “rest in peace”. You know he’s dead, right? You know he’s a pile of bones? You know he’ll be in peace regardless of what happens to those bones because he ceased to exist more than 300 years ago?

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m as romantic as the next man. I actually had to fight back tears when I realised I was standing next to Galileo’s bones in the Basilica di Santa Croce. It moved me more than I was ever expecting.

    I’m not saying that I agree with the suggestion that we dig him up. But think about it – would Galileo have approved? Probably.

  24. “However – and here’s the odd part – you’re all advocating that we let him “rest in peace”. You know he’s dead, right? You know he’s a pile of bones? You know he’ll be in peace regardless of what happens to those bones because he ceased to exist more than 300 years ago?”

    >>>Damn straight! I still think it’s a pointless endeavour, but you’ve hit the nail on the head here John. HE IS DEAD! He doesn’t care what you do to him, because he no longer exists!

  25. O.K. let’s back up and think about this for a minute…….. ok done, It’s still not going to change the fact that Saturn has rings and not “handles” as Galileo may have thought, and yes he is dead, but come on people let him rest in peace, this is going nowhere, and if they do approve to “dig him up”
    they should put those people in the ground when they put him back..

  26. What a stupid, wasteful idea! Leave him be. Exhuming him may or may not resolve some idle curiousity, but it’s not like they’re trying to identify who is buried in his grave or something else of much significance!

  27. Just another way for scientists to waste funds on some rediculous sinful project. I feel that they really don’t have any intelligence at all. They’re looking more and more stupid all the time.

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