Is that two moons around Saturn I see?

ROME (Reuters) - Italian and British scientists want to exhume the body of 16th century astronomer Galileo for DNA tests to determine if his severe vision problems may have affected some of his findings.

16th century astronomer Galileo Galilei in a portrait painted by Justin Sustermans in 1636. REUTERS/File

The scientists told Reuters on Thursday that DNA tests would help answer some unresolved questions about the health of the man known as the father of astronomy, whom the Vatican condemned for teaching that the earth revolves around the sun.

“If we knew exactly what was wrong with his eyes we could use computer models to recreate what he saw in his telescope,” said Paolo Galluzzi, director of the Museum of History and Science in Florence, the city where Galileo is buried.

Galileo, who lived from 1564 to 1642, is known to have had intermittent eye problems for the second half of his life and was totally blind for his last two years.

“There were periods when he saw very well and periods when he did not see very well,” said Dr. Peter Watson, president of the Academia Ophthalmologica Internationalis and consultant to Addenbrooke’s University Hospital, Cambridge.

Watson, who has studied Galileo’s handwriting, letters and portraits of the astronomer, suspects he may have had unilateral myopia, uveitis -- an inflammation of the eye’s middle layer -- or a condition called creeping angle closure glaucoma.

Watson believes Galileo did not acquire his eye problems by looking at the sun but by systemic illnesses, including an attack when he was young that left him temporarily deaf and bloody discharges and arthritis so severe he was bedridden for weeks.

He was under particular stress when he was tried for heresy by the Inquisition because the Copernican theory he supported conflicted with the Bible.


One of the “errors” that Galileo made, which Galluzzi suspects may have been attributed to his bad eyesight, is that he believed Saturn was not perfectly round but may have had an irregular, inflated side.

With his 20-power telescope and with his eyes in bad shape he might have mistaken Saturn’s gaseous ring to surmise that it was formed of one planet with two moons as satellites.

“This was probably a combination of errors. He probably expected to find satellites and his eyesight may have contributed to some confusion,” said Galluzzi.

“A DNA test will allow us to determine to what measure the pathology of the eye may have ‘tricked’ him,” he said.

“If we discover the pathology he suffered, we can formulate a mathematical model that simulates the effects it would have had on what he saw and using the same type of telescope he used we can get closer to what he actually saw,” Galluzzi said.

“We only have sketches of what he saw. If we were able to see what he saw that would be extraordinary,” he added.

Galileo was buried in Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica about 100 years after his death. Before, his remains were hidden in a bell tower room because the Church opposed a proper burial.

His bones were stored together with those of one of his disciples, Vincenzo Viviani, and those of an anonymous woman.

Galluzzi and others believe the bones belong to the most beloved of Galileo’s three illegitimate children, Sister Maria Celeste, a nun who died when she was 33. She was the subject of the 1999 international bestseller “Galileo’s Daughter,” by Dava Sobel. DNA would determine if she is his daughter.

Galluzzi said he was waiting for permission from the Church to exhume the body and then would form a committee of historians, scientists and doctors to oversee the project.

Editing by Katie Nguyen