Corrections or additions?
This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the March 13,
2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Galileo for Our Times
It is hard to pin a name on the kind of books that
author Dava (pronounced DAY-va) Sobel has been writing with such
Saying they define the "historical-scientific-non-fiction
genre may sound clunky — but you need that many hyphens to
Sobel’s ability to breathe literary life (not to mention
back into the passions and intrigues of long-dead science mavericks.
Sobel, who turns scientific sagas into gripping bestsellers, will
give a talk titled "Galileo: Working Scientist," on Thursday,
March 14, at Princeton University’s McDonnell Hall.
Galileo Galilei is one of two pioneers that Sobel spent years
and writing about during the 1990s. The other was John Harrison, a
British clockmaker who in the 1700s constructed a series of
that solved the problem of gauging longtitude at sea, paving the way
for unprecedented global expansion and trade.
Sobel’s 1999 book, "Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of
Science, Faith, and Love," was a 2000 Pulitzer Prize finalist
and spent five well-deserved weeks at the top of the New York Times
In it, Sobel wove together spellbinding threads of Galileo’s life:
his groundbreaking work in astronomy and physics; his calling down
the wrath of the Inquisition for suggesting, like Copernicus before
him, that planets wheeled around the sun, instead of the Earth; and
his relationship with his adoring daughter, the cloistered Suor Maria
Celeste, whose surviving letters to him became an integral part of
Her literary portrait of Galileo ranges from the tender
— a father who craves his daughter’s candied citron — to the
cataclysmic, with a resistant Catholic church muzzling one of its
most powerful minds. But in her talk here, Sobel will highlight the
more quotidien but no less significant details of the life behind
the legend. Just like his counterparts today, Galileo — as a
scientist — had to scrounge for cash, turn a buck with tech
and publish or perish.
"It’s so easy to think of Galileo as having lived in some rarefied
bubble where he didn’t worry about issues like the day-to-day funding
of research, but of course he did have to worry about them," said
Sobel in a telephone interview. "He was stuck with the same
as scientists today, so in some respects not much has changed."
No less an authority than former Princeton resident Albert Einstein
credited Galileo with having founded the field of physics. Born in
1564, two months before Shakespeare, Galileo began teaching medicine
and mathemathics at the University of Pisa, even though he himself
had never graduated.
He "found himself lionized," Sobel writes, after he improved
upon the spyglass, a Dutch invention, and started racking up a
list of astronomical discoveries: the moons of Jupiter, the spots
on the sun, the never-before seen topography of our own moon. Witty
and suave, he deftly maneuvered around court intrigues, papal
cutthroat scientific rivalries, and outbursts of the plague, and
the plum job of philosopher and mathematician to the Medici court
When he wasn’t peering at the stars, he was hustling to make a living,
patenting an irrigation device and inventing a geometric compass that
he then hired a craftsman to churn out for sale, charging students
to learn its use.
He dropped objects — legend has that they were cannonballs —
off Pisa’s Leaning Tower to see how fast they fell. He ground his
own lenses and refined optics. He posited a spinning earth from the
movement of the tides, and translated motion and resistance into
formulas. He brushed aside the scientific discourse of his day —
a vague language of "ethers" and "essences" —
working to define time and acceleration instead.
"Other scientists before him — like Copernicus and Kepler
— observed, but Galileo experimented," Sobel says. "He
kept building gizmos and watching what happened to them." He also
wrote about tides, comets, the Jovian moons, volumes that got spirited
throughout a thirsty Europe as soon as they appeared. He wrote in
Italian, not the Latin of scholars, so that mechanics as well as
could read his work. He set his last great book on material and motion
not in a university, but in a shipyard.
And he almost got himself killed. His "Dialogue on the Two Chief
World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican" soundly endorsed views
that only 32 years earlier had gotten another Copernican enthusiast
burned — literally — in Rome. A devout Catholic, Galileo
his work’s gross heresy and error, and spent the last years of his
life blind and under house arrest, forbidden to teach.
"There is really nothing comparable to the Inquisition today,
but scientists are still limited by what kind of research can be
Sobel says. "That’s a serious problem for many of them because
some subjects are not popular with funding agencies, so there are
prejudices that still prevail."
But instead of religion dictating to science,
a reverse religious prejudice now," she continues. "I think
it might be hard for a serious scientist today to own up to being
a good Catholic, although many of them are. It’s just not comfortable
or popular for them to say so."
The daughter of a physician father and a mother who trained as a
Sobel was born and raised in the Bronx, where she graduated from the
prestigious Bronx High School of Science. She attended several
before graduating from SUNY at Binghamton with a degree in theater
"Science was tugging at me, but I didn’t think I could be a
— and at the time there was no defined career path in science
writing," says Sobel. However, she soon fell into what has turned
out to be a 30-year career as a science writer, starting out by
manuals for IBM. She moved into television, writing for a medical
program in Maine, then started freelancing for publications including
Omni, Science Digest, and Harvard Magazine. The latter proved to be
a critical link at several junctures in her career.
The first time, one of her Harvard articles caught the eye of a New
York Times editor who helped her land a job with the paper’s science
section. She worked there for two years before leaving to freelance
again, writing a series of medical books for Times Books and Rodale
Press, as well as treating the possibility of extraterrestrial life
in the 1992 "Is Anyone Out There?"
The second time was in 1994, when Sobel’s Harvard cover story on a
longitude symposium held at the university led to a book offer from
an editor (and Harvard alumni) at Walker & Company. Sobel’s book
was so paltry — just $7,000 — that her year of research had
to be liberally padded with freelance assignments. She was so
strapped that she almost decided not to go to England to see the
marvels crafted by Harrison that she was celebrating in her book.
But go she did, and "Longitude," which was published in 1995
with a tiny first printing, unexpectedly took off and soared. The
book has gone through 26 hardcover editions, been translated into
two dozen languages, turned into a PBS NOVA documentary as well as
a BBC docudrama, and allowed Sobel to buy a home in the Hamptons,
where she lives with her husband and two children.
"Galileo’s Daughter" brought her even more acclaim, after
a year in Italy doing research funded by a $30,000 Sloan Foundation
grant. Having studied Italian in college that she brushed up in adult
education classes, Sobel did her own translations of Suor Maria
A volume of the complete letters, "Letters to
was published last November, with all proceeds going to the religious
order Galileo consigned both his two daughters to when they were
He took that convent route to protect them from the controversy
around his work — and because he might have a hard time finding
husbands for them, since both were beloved but illegitimate. Sobel
said she came to greatly admire the woman who was devoted to her
and who died at age 34.
"I appreciated her disposition — optimistic, practical, and
yet poetic — and the fact that she came to peace with her
says Sobel. "It was undoubtedly not her choice, but she made the
best of it and managed to keep her sense of humor."
Sobel’s next book, tentatively titled "Lives of the Planets,"
won’t arrive for at least two years. It will be a departure from her
literary focus on a scientific giant at war with the powers that be.
"In the history of the solar system," she says, "there
are lots of people who struggled."
She graciously declines to name those science writers she particularly
likes, saying she personally knows just about all of them. "But
I had tremendous respect for Carl Sagan," she adds. "I think
he did more than probably anyone to get people interested in science,
to make his own excitement known, and to help people see that science
need not be limited to a priesthood."
— Phyllis Maguire
A-02 Auditorium, 609-258-5822. "Galileo: Working Scientist."
Book signing follows the lecture. Free. Thursday, March 14, 8
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