Last October I was very lucky to go on a trip with my research group to the birthplace of the Renaissance.
Florence has always been one of my favourite cities, but I had never visited their Museum of the History of Science before. So, naturally, being a group of scientists, this was top of our list and indeed our first stop!
Situated on three levels (and a basement!) overlooking the river, the Museo Galileo houses an extensive range of scientific instruments and equipment from both the Medici (15th-18th centuries) and Lorraine (18th-19th centuries) dynasties. The collections consist of a number of detailed and exquisite armillary spheres (the most breathtaking featured in the picture here), globes, thermometers, telescopes and the largest collection of scientific experimental apparatus I’ve ever seen. These apparatus portray just how inspiring the area of Tuscany was during the Medici period and how much they contributed to the progress of areas of science such as astronomy, chemistry, electricity, electromagnetism and physics.
Another draw to this museum (and something I was looking forward to seeing!) is the fact that it is the home of Galileo Galilei’s finger! In fact, in 2010, the famous astronomist’s finger was joined by his thumb, middle finger and one of his teeth when the bones turned up at an auction in 2009. They are now showcased in a small and delicate glass egg, as well as in a bell jar, all together in a small cabinet in the middle of the museum’s collection of scientific equipment and apparatus. Having seen many religious relics of saints which are venerated and take pride of place in churches and cathedrals, I was surprised that Galileo’s finger wasn’t given more importance within the museum – I almost missed it, and people were just walking past it! However, with his remains now interred at the Basilica di Santa Croce just around the corner, I suppose he would find some humour in the fact that his middle finger was removed so that it could sit defiantly within the telescopes that made him so hated by the church!
One final thought – the large number of scientific equipment from the later centuries that were used to demonstrate the various laws of physics made me realise how we have lost the art of teaching science by these beautifully crafted apparatus. If these methods of scientific teaching could be adopted in schools, at universities and amongst the general public in open lectures more often, then perhaps more people would be interested and inspired to pursue careers in the more ‘tougher’ STEM subjects like physics and engineering. As the French clergyman and physicist Jean-Antoine Nollet once said, “Experimental physics cannot do without instruments”.