The Middle Finger Of Modernity


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The Middle Finger Of Modernity

  1. 1. The Middle Finger of Modernity.<br />It is a remarkable bit of irony, that finger. Venerated, kept in reliquary, subjected to the same treatment as a Saint. But this finger belonged to no Saint. It is the long bony finger of an enemy of the church, a heretic. A man so dangerous to the religious institution he was made a prisoner in his own home. It sits in a small glass egg atop an inscribed marble base in the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, or the History of Science Museum in Florence, Italy. On the shelf next to the middle finger of his right hand is something that the once five-fingered heretic would be much happier to see preserved. A small, cracked bit of glass that once glimpsed into the heavens.<br />Galileo listened with rapt interest as Paolo Sarpi explained the odd device he had just seen and held with his own two hands. A sort of tube with multiple lenses, it allowed for the close viewing of objects from a distance. It was not the first that either man had heard of such an object. Rumors of such things, created by glass makers, had been floating around for a couple of years. But this was the first time that Sarpi had actually had a chance to see one in person, to look through its green, warbled, lens, to experience the world magnified. Sarpi would have bought it, had the stranger peddling these strange new wares not disappeared so suddenly.<br />Though Sarpi was the Venetian senate’s science advisor, he knew the man to talk to about such an exciting item was Galileo Galilei. Galileo had recently finished building a calculating machine and was Florence’s most renowned maker of scientific instruments. After listening and mulling it over, Galileo did what any modern engineer would do; he reverse engineered it, and built one for himself. What Galileo Galilei didn’t know was in doing so he was both securing his place in history, and beginning his fall from grace.<br />The History of Science Museum holds numerous telescopes, from the original lens of Galileo to a charming “ladies model” seen on the left, left0to massive 2 feet wide, 15 foot long giants. The exact moment of origin of the telescope is hard to pin down. The needed parts to make a telescope existed from 1450, and there are some tantalizing texts from the 1500’s that describe a telescope like device. It is quite likely that telescopes were constructed by glass makers at some point, but often being illiterate, they made no record of them and they were lost to history. The first written record of a telescope comes in 1609 from the Dutch Hans Lipperhey, looking for a patent award. (He was turned down on the basis that it was much too easy to copy the design. A judgment that seems unlikely to happen in today’s modern copyright world.)<br />Designed by the Dutch, it would be Galileo who would make the magnification of telescopes 10 times stronger and turn the telescope to the heavens, calling into question the very order of the universe.<br />Galileo was in fact, a religious man. He felt that “the language of God is mathematics” and respected the church. He occasionally had troubles following the exact word of the Catholic establishment, as his three children born out of wedlock illustrate. But he saw no particular conflict between his Heliocentric (a galaxy revolving around the sun) view and the word of scripture, arguing that the bible shows us the way into heaven but not what’s in the heavens.<br />On good terms with the Pope for most of his life, when heliocentricity became a particularly hot button issue in 1616, the Pope gave Galileo a personal warning to stop advocating Heliocentrism. He would be allowed to publish a book, but he must present “both sides” evenly, including the Pope’s opinion and that of a Geocentric (a galaxy revolving around the earth) philosopher’s viewpoint. In 1632 he did just that, with both Papal and Inquisition permission.<br />It went terribly for Galileo. Due to poor arguing on the part of the Geocentric, the aptly named Simplicius, and the unintended attribution of the Pope’s words to the simple Simplicius, the book came across like an attack piece. The Pope was highly offended, and Galileo was tried and convicted of heresy. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, dying in his home in 1642.<br />Notably it would Sir Isaac Newton who would make the next major improvement to the design of telescopes. By using mirrors he created the first practical reflecting telescope and opened the stars to much further exploration. (Though the theory for this belongs to another). Like Galaleo, Newton was a great believer in God, but had a complex relationship with conventional religion. Unlike Galileo, there was right364490no inquisition in Protestant England to put Newton on trial.<br />As with a fine wine, it took some years for Galileo’s finger to age into something worth snapping off his skeletal hand. The finger was removed by one Anton Francesco Gori on March 12, 1737, 95 years after Galileo’s death. Passed around for a couple hundred years it finally came to rest in the Florence History of Science Museum. Today is sits among lodestones and telescopes, the only human fragment in a museum devoted entirely to scientific instruments. It is hard to know how Galileo would have felt about the final resting place of his finger. Whether the finger points upwards to the sky, where Galileo glimpsed the glory of the universe and saw God in mathematics, or if it sits eternally defiant to the church that condemned him, is for the viewer to decide.<br />A link to the fabulous History of Science Museum in Florence which you will be hearing more about in the near future. They have an amazing online catalog of what seems like every object in the collection.<br />A link to the wonderful writings of A Cabinet of Wonders, who recently wrote a great piece about Galileo’s finger and other relics of interest.<br />Finally a link to the Galileo project where you will find out more about the man, the machines and the times.<br />1619250235585<br /> Trinity<br />December 2009<br />