Looking Through Galileo’s Eyes

The view from Galileo's last home now looks out on Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics, where researchers have made a model of his telescope. (Nicole Martinelli/GlobalPost)

The view from Galileo’s last home now looks out on Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics, where researchers have made a model of his telescope. (Nicole Martinelli/GlobalPost)

ARCETRI, Italy — Astronomers have recreated Galileo Galilei’s telescope to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his groundbreaking observations.

Galileo spent his last eight years confined to Villa Gioiello here in the hills south of Florence after he was condemned as a heretic in 1632 for his conclusion that the Earth revolved around the sun. The small white building has a bare facade, except for a bust of the scientist staring fiercely at the Trattoria Omero across the street.

In the late 19th century, the white domes of the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) observatory rose within view of the Villa. Now, after two years of study, INAF researchers are observing the night sky with a replica of Galileo’s telescope.

They began trying to see through Galileo’s gaze in January 2009. While Galileo spent just one winter making his observations, researchers strung out the work over the year. Paolo Stefanini, a technician who has solved problems big and small at INAF since 1966, believes Galileo would recognize the simple metal tool he crafted.

“When we first set out to re-create it, aesthetics played a part,” Stefanini said. “But we also needed something sturdy. The original was made from strips of wood joined together and covered with red leather; we needed a telescope that could be used without falling apart.”

Like Galileo’s instrument, the modern replica is about three feet long. It magnifies distant objects by refracting light through lenses housed in a tube, with a light-gathering objective lens at one end and an eyepiece at the other.

Stefanini made his refracting telescope and tripod from spare metal parts found around the observatory. The lenses were crafted by the National Institute of Applied Optics in Florence, which measured the shape and refractive index of the originals and the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Florence, where scientists determined glass composition using X-ray fluorescence.

Instead of one man peering at the winter night sky and making hasty sketches, however, the images are recorded by a light-sensitive silicon chip called a charge coupled device or CCD. Attached to a digital camera, it transforms photons into electrical signals, making digital versions of the images as they would form on the retina of a human observer. Starry skies captured by the replica will be published online in early 2010.

Galileo wasn’t the first to point a telescope at the heavens, but the 45-year-old-mathematics professor taught himself the art of lens grinding, making his the most powerful around. His instrument magnified 20 times, allowing him to see moon craters, identify individual stars in the Milky Way and Jupiter’s four largest moons.

Galileo spent late 1609 and early 1610 gathering information and drawing the sky; his observations became the Sidereus Nuncius (“Starry Messenger”) a treatise that led to a clash with the Inquisition.

The idea to re-create Galileo’s telescope originated on the terrace of the Institute and Museum of Science in Florence. Museum director Paolo Galluzzi took one of the two original remaining Galilean telescopes on the museum roof to inspect the night sky.

“I have to admit, I saw very little through Galileo’s telescope,” Galluzzi said. “You realize how much he accomplished by trying to see what he did, the way he did.” Galluzzi, for example, strained to spot Jupiter’s largest moons, noting how impressive it was that Galileo not only saw them but also calculated their phases.

Galileo’s telescope has a very narrow field of view: The moon, for instance, fills it entirely. When Galileo spied the blanket of stars in the Pleiades and the Milky Way, he “got tired” of trying to sketch them all, Palla said, creating a challenge for researchers to reconstruct his accurate but incomplete observations.

Galileo also had poor eyesight and vision problems. To know precisely what Galileo saw, Galluzzi wants to open his tomb in Florence to examine his DNA. If authorities grant permission, it’s up to Peter Watson, bespectacled president of the International Council of Ophthalmology, to determine whether Galileo suffered from a condition called creeping angle closure glaucoma. Galluzzi believes it might explain why Saturn has lateral bulges and not rings in Galileo’s sketches.

To follow in Galileo’s footsteps, the Arcetri Observatory team uses a photocopy of the original manuscript, which includes eloquent watercolors of moon phases made hastily on scrap paper.
Looking at the heavens as Galileo did requires more that just the equipment, however. On a recent night, thick cloud cover made pointing any telescope futile. And to minimize interference from light pollution, Stefanini spent long nights stargazing from his home nestled in the Tuscan countryside.

“Even the best equipment doesn’t guarantee much with astronomy,” said Francesco Palla, director of the observatory. “Patience is about 90 percent of what we do.”

While waiting for the sky to clear, Palla gives an evening visit to a group of Florentine 5th graders. In response to questions from the soft-spoken director, hands dart up to answer that the earth revolves around the sun, what the Milky Way is and how many stars there are in Orion’s belt — the same principles that got Galileo excommunicated.

When the kids file out 90 minutes later, the clouds have parted enough to try to frame the moon in the model of Galileo’s telescope.

Squinting to overcome my own nearsightedness, the rough surface of the moon in its first phase finally comes into view. It’s a whole new world.

This story first appeared in the Global Post, that site is now a part of PRI.org.

Souvenir Sales Spike After Berlusconi Hit With Mini-Cathedral



After Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was struck in the face with a replica of Milan’s cathedral Dec. 13, souvenir sellers here are reporting brisk sales of copycat statues.

“Around here, sales of some tourist items slow down or stop for awhile, ” a vendor identified as Willy told told conservative daily newspaper il Giornale. “The mini-duomo was one of those items. Today, they’ve started moving again. A lot of journalists are buying them, but also people who want to give them as Christmas gifts. ”

Other vendors reported that they sold maybe one of the statues representing the soaring Gothic spires of the fourth-largest church in the world and icon of the city a month, but sold 40-45 a day since the incident.

The dangerous doodad — Berlusconi landed in the hospital with a broken nose, two cracked teeth and also suffered injuries to his lips and cheek — measures 10 x 10 centimeters (about 4 x 4 inches) and is made of resin and chalk. Sold in kiosks in the square around the cathedral, it can cost anywhere from €6-€12 euros ($8.70- $17.50).

Massimo Tartaglia, a 42-year-old with a history of mental problems, hurled the mini-cathedral through the crowd on Sunday as Berlusconi greeted supporters in a rally. Tartaglia is now in isolation at Milan’s San Vittore prison. While he has written a letter apologizing for his “cowardly act,” police are now investigating Facebook groups that sprung up defending his act of tchotchke terrorism.

Hygienic Holy Water Flows in Italian Church


Although many communal fonts in Italian churches have run dry because of the flu scare, one small parish church has a custom-designed font that dispenses holy water for making the sign of the cross in a more hygienic fashion.

It works much like a touchless soap dispenser in a public bathroom: the faithful place their hands underneath it, triggering a motion sensor and holy water runs forth.

Nicknamed the “sacred dispenser,” the container is covered in terracotta with a matching basin. It hangs on the wall in the church of Tre Fanciulli a Fornaci, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of Milan.

“I thought it up seven years ago while working my pizzeria,” inventor Luciano Marabese told newspapers. The parish priests in the town of about 5,000 had related to Marabese the disturbing news that drug addicts were washing needles in church fonts. Between spinning one pizza and the next, Marabese came up with the idea of safer holy water.

“It’s been in the church since 2005, but since the flu scare, I’ve been contacted by half of Europe — Spain, Portugal, Poland — only the Vatican hasn’t called yet. ”

The hygienic holy water dispenser costs about €1,500 ($2,200), with part of the proceeds going to humanitarian projects in Africa.

Need a Place to Breast-Feed? Try a Pharmacy


Mothers in Verona, Italy can pop in to city-run pharmacies the next time they need to breast-feed.

They’ll find a quiet back room with a comfortable chair, changing table and bathroom. Thanks to a short training course for pharmacists, they should also find an understanding environment.

Participating pharmacies have the above logo, which somewhat redundantly says “Friendly Pharmacy for Breast-Feeding Mothers.” (Are they expecting to turn away milk men?)

It started when pharmacist Paolo Delfini came into contact with mother’s association Il Melograno, he realized that moms with newborns were often left to fend for them selves.

While images of the Madonna Lactans are fairly common, Italy’s birth rate is one of the lowest in the world and Italians seem to be out of the habit of seeing women breast feed.

Recently, a mother breast-feeding her five-month-old who was asked to leave a hotel restaurant because the manager said other customers complained made national news.

Thirteen pharmacies are currently offering a haven for breast-feeding, organizers hope to convince the national association of pharmacies to participate in the program. There’s one slight flaw in the breast-feed at the pharmacy scheme — most Italian pharmacies usually close at mid-day and on Sundays, so finding one open could be a challenge.

Italian Supermarket Offers Jobs as Prizes in Raffle

caption: the Tigros campaign banner says "I went shopping and found a job."

To celebrate 30 years in business, an Italian supermarket is staging a lottery where the prizes include ten jobs.

Customers, who must be local residents and over 18, might pick up a job along with the pasta at supermarket chain Tigros. The ad for the publicity ploy (above) says: “I went shopping and found a job.”

“Despite the economic crisis, we’re still growing,” founder Luigi Orrigoni told local papers. We’re opening one store after a remodel and a new store in May. It made sense to celebrate the anniversary by having our customers come to work for us.”

Based in the northwestern city of Varese, family-run Tigros has 59 stores and employs 1,200. They’ve printed 700,000 coupons for the lottery — other prizes includes free groceries — that runs for the month of September. Job winners may stock shelves, work at the check out, meat or fish counter, depending on experience.

If the winners do a good job on a year-long contract, Tigros says they’ll become full-time permanent hires. In Italy that usually means a job for life, with perks such as a guaranteed yearly bonus (one month’s salary) and six weeks of vacation a year.

See an Abandoned Dog? Text the Animal Rescue Squad


Summer in Italy means long vacations and, unfortunately, pets abandoned by the side of the road.

The numbers are chilling: every year in Italy an estimated 100,000 dogs are dumped by owners not willing to take them along or pay for a kennel when they go on holiday. 750,000 other pets, including cats, rabbits and turtles are also left to fend for themselves every year.

Eighty-five percent of abandoned pets die within 20 days on the streets, particularly in traffic accidents. In the last 10 years, abandoned animals have caused 45,000 road accidents, resulting in 4,000 injuries and 200 deaths.

Public awareness campaigns and fines — ranging 1,000 to 10,000 euros — have done little to keep Italians from forsaking Fido.

Text messages are the latest strategy: if you see a wandering dog on the autostrada, text the animal rescue squad at 334 1051030, specifying kilometer and direction. The text alerts a network of 70 volunteer groups organized by animal association AIDAA.

Animal website prontofido launched the initiative, co-sponsored by Radio 105 (which has been running rap-like ads about it with brainwashing regularity) and Autogrill.

Launched late July, the service will be in effect until the end of August. The first weekend, volunteers rescued a pincher seven minutes after a text was sent near the Tuscan town of Lucca. (A reminder: if you see abandoned animals in town, alert the local police “vigili” by calling 112. They are obliged by law to pick up these animals and take them to a shelter).

Still, they are bracing for the peak period of mid-August holidays, or ferragosto, when most of the peninsula’s 60 million inhabitants take a break. In a country where there are more cell phones than people, a quick text might help save a few animals.

UPDATE: “Topless Nun” Sues Ex-Boyfriend for Facebook Pics


UPDATE: news reports are calling the case a hoax. The lawyers who claimed to represent the young woman now say they have no photos proving the pictures were on Facebook.

A 31-year-old Italian woman, who will take vows to become a nun in the fall, is suing to have topless photos of herself removed from Facebook.

Bare-chested photos of the woman were snapped by her then boyfriend on a Sicilian beach — it was the last vacation they took together before she ended the relationship with the plan to don the habit.

Thwarted, the former lover reportedly tagged them “topless nun” and news of the pics spread.
The woman, unnamed in news reports, asked her ex-beau repeatedly to remove them from his profile, but he refused. Italian news agency ANSA reported the photos have drawn comments including: ”If all nuns were like her, I’d become a priest.“ So far, no names or pics have surfaced.

Although Italians lag behind other EU nations for Internet use, Italy may be the first country to make a full-length feature film about Facebook, called “Feisbum” (as per the Italian pronunciation) a rom-com in episodes about how the US social media company is changing relationships.

Photo used with a CC-license, thanks fiorellaq

Italy’s “Brain Drain” Becomes Big-Screen Drama

Modern Italian great minds are fleeing the country, unable to get valuable research done in the face of shrinking funds, nepotism, red tape, penurious salaries and colossal inefficiency.

Now this drama is being turned a movie called “Il Bene Oscuro” (loose translation: the dark good), riffing on the common expression “dark evil” (il male oscuro) a euphemism for cancer or other lethal illnesses.

While Italian scientists and researchers have often left for other shores, one study found the number of Italian college grads heading abroad, often to Europe or the US, quadrupled in the 1990s. Italy will surely have to face consequences of a country bled dry of potential Leonardo Da Vincis and Enrico Fermis as it exports 30,000 researchers yearly and imports just 3,000, according to one program aimed at getting some of them back.

If you think the subject matter of genius lost is important but doesn’t lend itself to nighttime drama — watch the trailer. The gloomy, tension-filled treatment looks like something out of CSI: secret phone calls, shattering glass, a woman thrown across a lab table, threats and accidents and the word “researcher” repeated hauntingly throughout.

The producers are hoping to get it picked up by a national network and it shows: at least of the actors was from a popular soap opera, an Italian friend who watched it thought it might be a satire until the sponsor logo from Milan city government and Bayer popped up. If it’s a success, it will, however, raise money for an oncology research center in Milan’s San Raffaele hospital.

It’s hard to do any reporting on Italy’s scientific community without coming across the loss of human capital issue — one research lab I wrote about had lured back brain drained researchers from Canada but there are a many stories of researchers who’ve gone abroad and then been lulled back home, too, to mixed results.

Pasta la Vista, Baby: The Changing Italian Diet

25 years ago, Italian families ate more meat, drank more wine but put less fish and pasta on the table. La famiglia also usually shopped in small local stores — there were five times fewer supermarkets — and 85% of the time ate at home.

These are some of the changes tracked in a study (.pdf Italian only) by national food industry lobby Federalimentare to mark its 1983 founding, back when Socialist Bettino Craxi first stepped into office and pop hit “Vamos a la Playa” had Italians singing into their watches.

Rapid changes after World War II first revolutionized Italian eating habits, breaking some long-standing stereotypes. In the early 1950s, the Italian mamma spent a good chunk of her day preparing a hearty lunch, while her new millennium counterpart, less likely to be a stay at home mother, spends just a third of that time in the kitchen.

In the post-war period, Italians also spent half the family income on food. From 1983-2008, money spent on groceries dropped eight percent to 17.7% of the budget. They now eat 10% less meat, 10% more pasta and bread but about the same amount (18%) of fruit and veg. Beverages have flip-flopped: Italians now spend 5% of the budget on juice, bottled water and soda, five times more than in the 1980s when that same percentage was allotted for wine and spirits.

Some staples of the Italian postwar diet that have now disappeared include smoked herring (often eaten with polenta), tinned milk and carob beans, sucked like candy.

Image used with a CC license, thanks orsorama

Design of the Times in Milan

Milan buses are plastered with bright red posters reassuring recession-anxious consumers that if there’s a financial crisis, the Salone del Mobile is the answer.

That confident attitude sums up the buoyant mood at the 48th annual International Milan Furniture Fair, which started here on Wednesday and runs until Monday. In a city where fashion is king, design makes the most of its yearly five-day spotlight by showcasing the weird and the wonderful.

Exhibitors at the Massimiliano Fuksas-designed fairgrounds were up 15% to 1,496 from 2008 according to the organizer, Cosmit. Organizers expect to surpass last year’s record of nearly 350,000 visitors. Indeed, antsy lines for the metro, elbowing around the big-name stands and the crush to procure a restorative cappuccino are as fierce as ever.

Full story here.