How Do They Know That? And Why Should We Believe Them?

by DavalosMcCormack on November 24, 2009

The other day I came across a brief article in the San Francisco Chronicle – the newspaper is so thin these days that it really only has room for brief articles – that reported: “Two fingers and a tooth removed from Galileo Galilei’s corpse in a Florentine basilica in the 18th century and given up for lost have been found again. The relics were discovered inside an 18th century blown-glass vase purchased at an auction by a private collector.”

My first thought was ‘how do they know that?” I mean, if I’d just bought a vase and found two fingers and a tooth inside my initial reaction would be “yuck” not “My goodness, I wonder if those are the missing digits and molar of Galileo Galilei?”

Secondly, how do they know they belong to Galileo? I’ve been to Italy and every second church has a relic of some saint or other. In Sienna, in the cathedral dedicated to St. Catherine of Sienna, there are shrines containing her head, and her finger. Everywhere you go there are stray digits and bones and bits of other holy folk. So how do they know this was Galileo’s. Maybe it belonged to St. Ulsur of Ravena?

Then again Italy is home to the Mafia so how do they know those bits don’t belong to someone who didn’t pay up on time or who was suspected of ratting on the Cosa Nostra.

Thirdly, why does it matter. It’s not as if Galileo was missing the missing bits. He’s been dead for some time now (January 8, 1642 to be precise) so the absence of his fingers and tooth wasn’t really impeding his work. And now that they’ve found them what will they do with them? Put them back in his tomb so no one can see them, or put them on display so everyone can have a gawk. And if the latter then why not put the rest of his skeleton on display as well, might as well see where the fingers fit.

But as always when I come across stuff like this I think, “how do they know?”

I remember years ago interviewing this physicist at UC Berkeley and he was talking about nano technology. Now nano technology is stuff that is so incredibly tiny that you can’t see it without the most powerful of microscopes.

This researcher was describing something he was creating that was so small it was at the atomic level. It was a way of delivering anti-cancer medications directly to the tumor through the blood – just like in the movie “Fantastic Voyage” But then when he kept saying how tiny it was, and how you couldn’t see it,  I kept thinking “how do we know he isn’t just making this up?”

At one point it felt like the story in the Emperor’s New Clothes. Just because someone says it is so doesn’t mean it is. How do you prove the existence of something you can’t see (I know, but we’re not going to get into religion today)

And so when I come across stories like the “re-discovery” of Galileo’s fingers I’m always left wondering how do they know that?

As for what does this have to do with health? Well, I think it’s healthy to have a questioning mind. Not to accept what people say just because they have letters after their name.

And next time you buy a vase, take a look inside before you take it home. You never know what you might find inside!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Lisa November 24, 2009 at 10:50 am

Great post, Kevin. I often question the hell out of stuff when I’m too lazy to go to the gym. Seriously, great reminder.


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