Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Yes, send a little bit of Galileo into space...

It makes total sense. There is a mission to Jupiter, Juno, planned for next year. It has been suggested that we send a bit of Galileo on the spacecraft. After all, Galileo's fingers have been floating around in museums - so why not send a piece to the the planet that played such a central role in his ideas about the universe. It seems that NASA is all for it, but the Italian Space Agency - which is providing two instruments in the spacecraft - is a bit hesitant. From last week's Nature editorial (you may need subscription to access it):
The wariness on the Italian side is understandable. Galileo died in 1642, still under house arrest for his heretical views, and his burial place lay hidden until 1737, when civil authorities moved him to a prominent spot in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. Since then, the Franciscan order that runs the church has done its best to protect his remains. A 2008 proposal to exhume the body for genetic tests met with fierce opposition from the church's rector, who described such high-profile scientific efforts as resembling “a carnival”.
Yet Galileo has never been wholly at rest. During the reburial, attending naturalist Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti pried off the thumb and forefinger of Galileo's right hand for posterity; earlier this year, the bones went on display at a museum a few blocks from Santa Croce. And one of the astronomer's vertebrae is held by the University of Padua, where he once taught.
Compared with these disruptions of Galileo's eternal slumber, a sliver of bone seems a modest sacrifice for a gesture that would add emotional energy to the mission and remind the public that science is fundamentally a human endeavour.
Galileo himself understood the need to connect science with society, and he was politically astute enough to see the value of showmanship. It was no coincidence that he named the four biggest moons of Jupiter the 'Medicean stars' after his patrons, and accompanied his announcement of their discovery with a gift of an almost priceless telescope to Cosimo II de' Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Galileo might have tolerated a little post-mortem exploitation in the interests of public support.
Yup send a bit of Galileo to Jupiter. By the way, Gene Roddenberry was among the first people to have his ashes flown to space. I also remember a talk in grad school by a scientist who was in charge of an unmanned mission to crash-land a spacecraft on the Moon at the end of 1990's and NASA, at the last minute, decided to add the ashes of comet-hunter Eugene Shoemaker, who had recently dies in a car accident. This made the mission people uncomfortable as the spacecraft was getting ready to go - and even tiny tiny changes can potentially make a big difference. But, yes, Shoemaker's ashes did end up on the surface of the Moon in 1999. Pretty cool!! Oh and while we are on the subject, some remains of Clyde Tombaugh - the discoverer of the planet Pluto - are also onboard the robotic spacecraft, New Horizon, which is expected to get to Pluto in 2015.

I think space burials are very cool! Of course, there has been a tradition of sacred relics in many religions. But in this case, space itself seems to be serving as a sacred sphere - both for the religious and for the secular traditions.

Also see:
Galileo's middle-finger rises again in Florence
Galileo's fingers to be reunited!
Galileo in the service of Islam

And for the heck of it, here is the space burial of Spock at the end of Star Trek II - with some Monty Python in it:

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