A Curious Omission
A new exhibit at the Vatican Museums contains Galileo Galilei’s handwritten notes and a replica of one of his telescopes but no mention of how these items fueled the 16th-century astronomer’s stormy relationship with the church. Titled “Astrum 2009,” the exhibit is the joint effort of the Vatican Observatory, the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics and the Vatican Museums. It showcases antique instruments of astronomy and globes from throughout Italy, and some portions also offer stories of Catholicism’s contributions to the field.
Though a written introduction to the exhibit states that Galileo’s findings were not immediately accepted, the exhibit omits any specifics regarding the church’s condemnation in 1616 of Copernicus’s heliocentric view of the universe. Despite warnings from the church, Galileo continued to defend in writing this belief that the earth revolved around the sun. In 1633 he was accused of heresy and convicted, forced to deny his view and placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life.
The Vatican has since apologized. In 1992 Pope John Paul II formally acknowledged Galileo as a “brilliant physicist” and recognized “the error of the theologians of the time.” And while the church need not call excessive attention to Galileo’s mistreatment, the Vatican missed an opportunity to educate visitors about the church’s past as well as to offer a marker for how far it has come and a proper context in which to move forward. This silence about the Vatican’s role in the life of the man now held in esteem worldwide is a distraction from an otherwise laudable effort to continue building the church’s relationship with the scientific world.
The Pacific Garbage Patch
Floating in the North Pacific Ocean is a garbage patch estimated to be twice the size of the United States. It exists in areas affected by ocean currents called the North Pacific Gyre. Most of the debris consists of small plastic particles at or just below the surface of the water from such throwaway items as plastic bags and bottles and styrofoam cups. Eighty percent of the garbage in the gyre comes from sources in Japan and California. Although scientists corroborated the existence of this extraordinary example of marine pollution two decades ago, awareness on a wider scale came through articles written by Charles Moore, a California-based ocean researcher who came upon it while returning from Hawaii to the United States after a trans-Pacific sailing race in 1997.
Plastic does not readily decompose, but it does fragment into ever smaller pieces through exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun. Sea turtles and albatross ingest the particles. Besides the danger to underwater wildlife, the debris can carry toxic pollutants like PCB’s. Consumed by jellyfish, which are then consumed by fish, the pollutants can enter the human food chain. This past August an expedition called Project Kaisei, composed of scientists and environmentalists, set out from San Francisco to examine the North Pacific Gyre and study prospects for commercial recycling of the material. But since most of the debris comes from everyday items that consumers use and throw away, the real solution lies largely in changing our throwaway society’s bad habits.
Dr. Barnes’s Little Museum
Around 1910 Albert Barnes, M.D., a Philadelphia inventor of an antiseptic drug called Argyrol, quietly started collecting Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings—among them Renoirs, Matisses and Picassos. In 1923, after amassing a sizeable number of works, Barnes decided to show his collection to Philadelphia society. Bad move. As told in Howard Greenfield’s entertaining book The Devil and Doctor Barnes, the blue-nosed crowd laughed his paintings to scorn. So Barnes did what any self-respecting eccentric would do: He built his own museum and barred members of Philadelphia society from entering. It was to be a place for the education of the common man (and woman). But over time, as the collection became more desirable, art aficionados clambered to gain admission to the small mansion in Merion, Pa. James Michener once posed as a steelworker to see not only the Modiglianis and Gaugins, but also how Barnes had placed his masterpieces on the same wall with Amish door hinges that struck his fancy.
After a protracted legal dispute, the Barnes Foundation is moving from its original home into a much larger building in downtown Philadelphia, whose ultramodern design was recently put on public display. The move brings both benefits and drawbacks. The greatest boon will be for the millions more who will be able to see what many have called the greatest collection of Impressionist art in this country (one figure: 181 Renoirs). Also, the arcane admittance policies and severe limitations on the number of guests will end. On the other hand, Dr. Barnes’s own modest vision of a private museum designed for just a few persons at a time is at an end. Overall, though, Dr. Barnes’s perspicacity and grit will benefit even more of the common folk with whom he wanted to share his vision and to whom he wanted to show his great masterpieces.