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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

bestseller list.

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

Sobel’s narrative.

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

in Florence.

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

Dava Sobel, Princeton University, McDonnell Hall

A-02 Auditorium, 609-258-5822. "Galileo: Working Scientist."

Book signing follows the lecture. Free. Thursday, March 14, 8


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