Friday, June 11, 2010

Galileo and the Caves of Costozza

Scientist Galileo Galilei has charmed readers of The Secret of the Glass, my latest release from Kensington Books, as decidedly as he charmed me during my research. I am often asked about his illness and the manner in which he contracted it. And though every school child around the world studies the scientist and mathematician who perfected the telescope, little of the man is revealed.

Through his own recollections, I recount, in a very short but important chapter, an event in Galileo’s life in 1603 that resulted in his contracting a chronic illness, one that will ‘plague him for the remainder of his life.’ It is about this incident that so many ask…is it true?

In Galileo at Work: His Scientific Biography (University of Chicago Press, 1978), author Stillman Drake quotes letters from one of Galileo’s most devoted students, Vicenzo Viviani, which describe the incident:

“He was troubled up to the end of his life, by severe pains and twinges that molested him bitterly at changes of weather, in various parts of his body. These originated in him by his having been in the company of two noble friends of his, in the burning heat of one summer at a villa in the countryside of Padua, where they went to rest in a very cold room to escape the most uncomfortable hours of the day. When all were asleep, a servant thoughtlessly opened a vent through which, for pleasure, there used to be released a perpetual artificial wind generated by the motions and the fall of water nearby.”

The letter goes on to relate that all three men awoke with “torpor and chills, headaches and various disorders.” Within days, one of Galileo’s company had died; within months, the other. Though he survived, Galileo contracted an illness that many modern-day scientists and doctors equate with rheumatoid arthritis or other forms of auto-immune disease.

Author Michale Sharatt, in his book Galileo: Decisive Innovator (Cambridge University Press, 1996), mentions that it was in 1603 that Galileo “contracted the rheumatic illness that was to disrupt the rest of his life with incapacitating seizures.”

The event was further confirmed for me by this passage in Painting the Heavens: Art and Science in the Age of Galileo by Eileen Reeves (Princeton University Press, 1997): “It is possible, in fact, that the great interest shown by members of Sarpi’s circle in the underground caves of nearby Costozza—where subterranean waters, a continual damp wind, and regrettably the occasional fusion of noxious gases cooled a splendid villa—is related to such conjectures, for the site was visited without incident by Peiresc in the spring of 1602, and, rather disastrously, by Galileo in the summer of the following year.”

In other works, it was suggested that the men were told of the vent and were warned not to spend too much time in the room with it opened. Having found this a much more dramatic postulation, it was the version I chose to include in my book.

There is an abundance of suppositions as to the true nature of what Galileo and his companions were exposed to, that the ‘noxious gases’ ranged from carbon monoxide to radon and that the nature of his infirmity was auto-immune. The revelation of this history, that which made the mention of the scientist’s poor health a necessity in my work (and what bonded me to him), is my own similar illness. Since a bout of Lyme Disease, left undiagnosed for two and a half years, I too suffer from a chronic auto-immune disease. Galileo’s accomplishments, in spite of his ailment (or because of it, as I hypothesize in The Secret of the Glass) inspire me to keep working, regardless of my physical condition.

So often writers find parallels with their own lives and with current events that they are compelled to include certain facts in their work. Up next, The Case of the Two Clerics.

To celebrate the launch of my blog, I’m hosting a contest at my website. Stop by and enter to win an autographed copy of The Secret of the Glass and a pair of Murano glass earrings.