Pitti Palace, incubator of the scientific method

By 1657, the plague was largely spent and the Catholic Church was becoming a little choosier about its battles, especially given the spread of the Protestant Reformation.

In Italy, the Renaissance was winding down. Science had become so intrinsic to intellectual life that Leopoldo De' Medici, who was both a prince and, later, a Catholic cardinal, opened his private chambers in the Pitti Palace in Florence to a new scientific academy, the  Accademia del Cimento. ("Cimento" means "trial.")

Lion from the Pitti Palace
Lion from the Pitti Palace

Leopoldo and his brother, Grand Duke Ferdinando II of Tuscany, founded, and funded, the academy, which would meet for just 10 years. Its influence would last much longer.

Ferdinando had supported Galileo's experiments and had tried unsuccessfully to nudge the Church toward accepting them in the spirit of exploration. In the 1640s, he opened the Boboli Garden, the grounds of the Pitti Palace, his official residence, to experiments with thermometers, poultry incubators and other instruments.

Galileo's spirit hovered over the academy. Its motto was "provando e riprovando" — "testing and re-testing." Founding members included Galileo's students, like Vincenzo Viviani, who with fellow academy member Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, worked on experiments to pin down the speed of sound waves.

Another member was the physician Francesco Redi, who performed what is considered the first scientific experiment.

Distractions to the patrons, and quarrels among the members, doomed the academy. Its last act was the publication of a compilation of members' work, Examples of Natural Experiments, which in its Latin translation influenced the European scientific community profoundly, becoming essentially the science textbook for at least 100 years.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Patient safety is not improving: studies

Well, this is discouraging. Two recent studies indicate that, after a decade-long, nationwide campaign to make hospitals safer for patients, essentially no progress has been made.

A patient checking into a hospital today appears to face at least a one-in-four chance of coming to some degree of harm there.

A study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the records of 2,341 patients discharged from 10 randomly selected hospitals in North Carolina, which was chosen because of that state's "high level of engagement in efforts to improve patient safety."

The study took place between January 2002 and December 2007. What it found was, in short, that "harm to patients resulting from medical care was common in North Carolina, and the rate of harm did not appear to decrease significantly during a 6-year period ending in December 2007, despite substantial national attention and allocation of resources to improve the safety of care," the report stated.

A total of 588 patients were injured — 25.1 percent of study subjects. Harm was caused by, in declining numbers, procedures, drugs, hospital-based infections, other therapies, tests, falls and other causes, the study found. Sixty-three percent of these injuries were deemed to have been preventable. Nine preventable errors resulted in death, and 13 in permanent damage.

In addition, a report from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services released earlier this month documented the experiences of 780 randomly selected Medicare patients discharged from various hospitals in October of 2008.

About one in seven of these patients experienced "adverse events" — serious harm that comes to a patient as a result of medical care.

A second group of about the same size in the HHS study suffered "temporary harm," a transient injury like bedsores (here called "pressure ulcers") for example, or hypoglycemia. Twenty-seven percent of temporary harm events were caused by drugs.

Twenty-eight percent of patients who experienced more serious "adverse events" also suffered some temporary harm during the same hospital stay.

About 44 percent of all these events — adverse events and temporary harm — in the HHS study were deemed preventable — the result of errors, substandard care, or insufficient monitoring.

In 1999, the independent, not-for-profit Institute of Medicine published a report on hospital safety, "To Err is Human," which caused a sensation and produced a massive effort to improve protocols at hospitals across the country. The goal was to decrease errors by 50 percent over a five-year period.

"To Err is Human" asserted that as many as 98,000 patients die in hospitals each year because of medical error.

Commenting on the two discouraging new studies, the authors of the NEJM report on patient safety in North Carolina write, "All the findings about extent of harm should increase our commitment to prevent it."

Thanks for the (ability to make) memories

Today is the American Thanksgiving, and I am counting my blessings, which are more numerous than these turkeys.

Turkeys

As always, I am grateful to be here for another Thanksgiving. Maeve and I could so easily have died during her birth — or we could have suffered horrific brain damage. I never forget that, and I think of the people who saved our lives nearly every day.

I lost my job this year, but that has given me more time to work on Birth Story. Yay!

Of course, the fact that my husband has a job helps my outlook a great deal. My prayers are with people who have not been as fortunate as we are.

Our family has shrunk with our daughter Nora's graduation and subsequent move to California. That's a tough one to celebrate, but she is following her bliss, and I believe she is grateful to be making her own way.

And we will have a nice Thanksgiving dinner, just the three of us, with a turkey breast for the first time instead of a big ol' turkey, but still with all the trimmings. We'll be grateful for pumpkin pie, I know that.

And I'm glad I'm not a turkey.

What are you grateful for? I would love to hear from you. Happy Thanksgiving!

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The lynx-eyed ones

Science was all the rage among progressive young aristocrats in the 17th century. In 1603, in Rome, Federico Cesi and other science-mad young men founded the Accademia dei Lincei, which has endured, in a decidedly broken line, down into our time as Italy's national science academy.

The society, which took its name from the lynx pictured on the title page of Giambattista della Porta's book, Natural Magic, represented an ambitious bid to decipher the mysteries of the natural world. The lynx was admired for its keen eyesight which, metaphorically, the Academy's members hoped to apply to their scientific investigations.

Accademia dei Lincei

Accademia dei Lincei

While European intellectuals had begun sharing their thoughts in the 16th century, this new academy was the first really seminal scientific body, inspiring imitators all over Europe and introducing the notion that the free flow of information among men of science would push forward the communal body of knowledge.

Early members included Della Porta himself, as well as the celebrated Galileo Gallilei, who was so thrilled with the honor that he included a reference to the society on the title pages of all his subsequent books.

Science made officials of church and state nervous enough that one of the charter members of the Academy, Johannes Eck, a Dutchman, was banished for a time. While he traveled around Europe, Eck spread the word about the society's work.

The Academy published Galileo's Letters on Sunspots in 1613 and The Assayer in 1623. When the authorities of the Catholic Church turned against Galileo and his radical new ideas, which included the Copernican assertion that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice versa, which is how the Bible sets things out, the Academy supported him.

Galileo later recanted his heliocentrism, which didn't keep him from spending his last days under house arrest. This was a gentler fate than the church was used to handing out to heretics, like Giordano Bruno (who did not recant). Bruno was executed.

The support of academies like the Lincei began to make the world less lonely, and perhaps even a safer place, for these early scientists to assert the truth as they saw it.

The microscope

In time, the microscope made the existence of a whole tiny world irrefutable. This amazing device was invented in the 1590s, probably either by Hans Janssen, working with his son, Zachariah, or by Hans Lippershey, all of whom were eyeglass makers in Middelburg, the Netherlands.

Robert Hooke's microscope

Robert Hooke's microscope

The microscope was possibly a byproduct of the invention of the telescope, and it definitely benefited from the fact that a great many people were wearing eyeglasses by the end of the 16th century.

The compound microscope, multiple lenses in a tube, like the device Robert Hooke used to make his famous study of cells, was invented before the simple, single-lens model like the one Anton van Leeuwenhoek used when he discovered microorganisms.

The Nobel Committee has awarded four prizes for microscopes, the most recent three for Physics:

  • Richard Zsigmondy won in Chemistry in 1925 for his development in 1903 of the ultramicroscope, which allowed him to view objects that were below the wavelength of light.
  • Frits Zernike won in 1953 for his invention in 1932 of the phase-contrast microscope, which makes colorless or transparent objects visible.
  • Ernst Ruska won in 1986 for the electron microscope, a superior design for magnification that he developed in 1938.
  • Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer won in 1986 for inventing the scanning tunneling microscope in 1981.  This amazing instrument makes the atoms in an object visible — in three dimensions!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons