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

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.

Surprises in a new study of maternal deaths

Scratch that last post.

It appears that societies around the world are working to improve the survival rate for mothers in birth after all -- and that their efforts are working.

Even as I was tapping out Monday's post, The Lancet was publishing a new study online that shows that maternal mortality has actually been dropping dramatically in many countries.

"The overall message, for the first time in a generation, is one of persistent and welcome progress," Lancet editor-in-chief Richard Horton wrote in a commentary that accompanied the study.Pregnant Graffiti

The number of maternal deaths per year worldwide has been tallied at 500,000+ in 2005, based on United Nations survey published in 2007. However, the new study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, shows deaths to have fallen from 526,300 in 1980 to 342 ,900 in 2008. That's good news.

Not only that, but taking out deaths from HIV/AIDS, which has emerged as a major factor in global maternal mortality, the figure would have been 281,500 in 2008.

More than half of maternal deaths are concentrated in six countries-- India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Afghanistan, which has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, this survey states. (Italy has the lowest rate, according to this report.)

The United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway are among the prosperous nations that are experiencing increases in maternal mortality (less than 1 percent for the U.S.). More comprehensive reporting could account for the increase, the researchers noted.

Not everyone is excited by the new survey's findings, Horton wrote in his commentary.

"Even before the paper ... was submitted to us, we were invited to “delay” or “hold” publication," by some members of  what Horton calls the "global health community" who fret that the relatively rosy picture the new study paints will lead to a flagging interest in working to make birth safer around the world.

Horton dismisses those worries, but expresses concern that the figures in the new report are so different from those in the 2007 UN survey.

"A process needs to be put in place urgently to discuss these figures, their implications, and the actions, global and in country, that should follow," he writes.

So it appears that MDG5, the Millennium Development Goal that has to do with improving birth safety for moms is, after all, alive and well.

"This new evidence suggests there is a much greater reason for optimism than has been generally perceived, and that substantial decreases in the (maternal mortality rate) are possible over a fairly short time," the report states.

Image by Petteri Sulonen