One of the stranger stories doing the rounds at the moment concerns Galileo’s fingers.
That’s right: his fingers. They’re on display in the Galileo Museum in Florence.
I found myself unconsciously shaking my head when I read about this. What? But no. It’s true. Galileo’s fingers are the star attraction, along with telescopes and other instruments designed by the great man.
They loved their relics in the old days and if you couldn’t find a saint to chop up, a scientist would do. When Galileo’s remains were finally permitted to be interred in hallowed ground, 95 years after his death, the workmen building his tomb couldn’t resist breaking off a couple of fingers and a bit of backbone.
The churchmen hated him because he called their bluff. They hated him so much that they forced him to deny something he knew perfectly well to be true, which was the fact that the Earth and all the other planets orbited the Sun. By his observations, he demonstrated what Copernicus had stated: we weren’t the centre of the known universe.
Unfortunately for Galileo, the 104th Psalm says Thou fixed the earth upon its foundations: it shall not be removed for ever. The church was more comfortable with the ramblings of an ignorant goat-herd than with the careful measurements of a man of science.
The bishops hated what Galileo had observed, dragged him before the Inquisition, accused him of heresy and condemned him to house arrest for the remainder of his life. They forced him to say publicly that he was wrong. The Sun revolved around the Earth just as they wished to believe, despite the plain evidence of his eyes and of anyone else who cared to look.
To make sense, the geocentric theory required the Sun and the planets to perform all sorts of acrobatics as they orbited the Earth, describing epicycloids and hypocycloids and every other sort of Spirographic contortion you could manage to draw on a bored and half-drunk Christmas Day.
Faced with a simple explanation that required no complications, it was a classic example of blind ignorance prevailing over dispassionate common sense. Galileo was well acquainted with the family of elegant curves ranging from the circle through its infinite cousins the ellipses and on to the parabola and the hyperbola with its shadow twin, both disappearing to endlessness, like the comet that appears once and is gone forever. He knew that planets and other celestial bodies followed these trajectories, whose secrets are hidden in a simple cone and can be revealed at the stroke of a blade.
Oddly enough, Galileo remained a devout Catholic, though he lived his private life in an unusual way for a man of faith, fathering three children outside marriage. He lived his life between conic sections and chronic erections.
In the end, Galileo had the final laugh. One of the first acts of Pope John Paul II in 1978 was to rehabilitate him and finally to accept that the Earth does in fact orbit the Sun and not the other way round. It only took 359 years.
And so, in the end, the great scientist and the Holy Church are in agreement, but these things are bound to leave scars. Maybe the builders who stole the bones in 1737 were thinking ahead. Maybe they were looking forward to the day when Galileo could give his tormentors the eternal finger.