Sunday, June 12, 2011


"The Sun with all the planets revolving around it, and depending on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as though it had nothing else in the universe to do."

Galileo Galilei

GALILEO GALILEI (1564 - 1642)

Like moons around the sky cabinet I have placed my tributes to astronomers. The most famous is Galileo. Brilliant and a notable egocentric, he was aided by the introduction of the telescope to greatly increase our knowledge of the universe. Unfortunately for him the publication of his "Dialogue," which promoted the Copernican concept of heliocentrism, ran him afoul of the Inquisition. After his trial in 1633 he was put under house arrest for the rest of his life. The Catholic church did not lessen his condemnation until 1992 and then only partially.

However, there were posthumous changes to Galileo's position promoted on a secular level. In 1737 the naturalist/historian Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti had Galileo's remains moved from an out of the way part of Santa Croce to a mausoleum in the main part of the church. According to the director of the Galileo Museum, it was accomplished "symmetrical to beatification."

During the transition Tozzetti removed two fingers, a thumb, a vertebra and a molar in the same way that relics were removed from the bodies of saints. The middle finger has been on display in the Instituto e Museo de Storia della Scienza (recently renovated and renamed the Museo Galileo) since its founding by the University of Florence in 1927.

In October 2010 the index finger, thumb and molar, which had disappeared in 1910, came up for auction as "unidentified human remains." They were identified by an astute person based on the reliquary containing them. Everything is reunited in the museum with the exception of the vertebra which is at the University of Padua.

For my drawing I used as a model a finger loaned to me by Dr. Felix Rogers from a hospital teaching collection. It is a cleaner, more attractive example than the original but still reminiscent.

The finger points to the sun, alluding to the issues of heliocentrism and Galileo's discovery of the existence of sunspots. Church doctrine stated the heavens were incorruptible. Only the space between Earth and the moon was subject to change. To say that the sun could change in any way was another heresy.

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"Many a man's nose was broken by his mouth."

Irish proverb

TYCHO BRAHE (1546 - 1601)

Earlier than Galileo and less well known is Tycho Brahe. Considered to be Danish, he was born in Scandia which is now part of Sweden. His observations are described as the most accurate and comprehensive before the invention of the telescope. He was recognized early for his talents. The king gave him the Island of Hven where Brahe built Uraniborg, a renowned research institute. He conducted his business there till the king died and he had disagreements with the successor. He moved on to Prague where he worked with his assistant Johannes Kepler. Kepler based his theories on Brahe's work.

If you are looking for weird tales and scandal, Tycho Brahe's is a bizarre and riveting story. Just knowing that he had a pet elk (or moose) who supposedly died of a fall while drunk, or that he employed a psychic dwarf who always sat under the banquet table could be enough, but there are modern theories of how he was murdered by mercury poisoning. There is even speculation that it might have been Kepler. Or, it might have been one of his own relatives hired by King Christian the IV who may have believed Brahe to have had an affair with his mother Queen Sophie. Perhaps Brahe was his father? There are theories that Shakespeare was inspired to write Hamlet by the stories.

The work I have done to represent him is based on the loss of most of his nose in a duel when in his early twenties. For the remainder of his life he wore a prosthetic nose made of either gold, silver or copper or a combination of gold and silver. I was lucky to have in my possession a plaster cast of our son Arno's nose, made by his twin brother, Barrett. Since both of our sons are excellent scientists it seemed appropriate for them to work on Brahe's behalf. I applied gold leaf to this nose and mounted it on a background created with the help of Robert Edwards. Robert has developed his own method of creating stunningly beautiful paintings using layer upon layer of printer's inks and varnish, with inclusions of beads, glitter, butterfly wings, flower petals and so forth. The better the light the more amazing the painting becomes. Robert walked me through the steps that helped me create a feeling of the night sky where I could float the nose.

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"However long I live, life is short, so I work.
And, however important man becomes he is nothing compared to the stars."

Caroline Herschel


Robert Mirek, a friend and excellent artist, literally put the book Age of Wonder into my hands and told me to read it. Despite its weight I carried it on a long trip that included a lot of time on an airplane - time to read consistently for hours. It was an exciting experience as the book pulled together so much fascinating information about the scientists I have only known about in bits and pieces. It made the Age of Enlightenment more cohesive for me and introduced me to many new ideas and people. Caroline Herschel was one of those compelling figures.

Tiny (4'3") Caroline was kept as a house servant by her parents until she was called from Germany to England by her brother William in 1772. He earned his living as a musician and was also a self-taught astronomer who worked through the night. He engaged Caroline to teach voice lessons. She could have been a professional singer but chose instead to work with her brother building telescopes and spending nights recording William's observations of the night sky.

William Herschel's work was so profound that he was recognized by the government and was made astronomer to King George III, with an excellent stipend.

Caroline was also recognized for her importance to astronomy and was the first woman to receive a salary from the government, albeit very small by comparison. She was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Astronomical Society in 1882. No woman received that honor again until 1996. An asteroid and a crater on the moon are among the things named for her.

I chose to represent Caroline, the great observer who identified nine comets, with the eye of Caroline Rogers, another remarkable soprano.