About Dava Sobel
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Author, Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel

About Dava Sobel

An Interview with Dava Sobel

More About Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel is an award-winning former science writer for The New York Times. The author of the bestselling Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter, Sobel’s work has also appeared in Audubon, Discover, Life, and The New Yorker.

An Interview with Dava Sobel

How did you first learn of Suor Maria Celeste's letters
to her father Galileo? What convinced you their
relationship would be a good subject for a book?

Longitude led me to Galileo's Daughter. While studying Galileo's efforts to solve the longitude problem, I read a book that included a fragment of one of his daughter's letters. In it she mentioned how she was struggling to fix the clock in the convent, and she asked him to help her. I was thunderstruck by the combination of surprises—that Galileo had a daughter I'd never heard of, that she was a nun (of all things! when I'd always considered him an enemy of the Church), that this young woman in the early seventeenth century would attempt clock repair and have such a father to write home to. I thought it was the best thing I'd ever heard. I hoped her letters might reveal new insights into Galileo's science and religion, but I couldn't be sure until I'd found and read them all—and translated them from Italian into English. So first I appealed to a number of Galileo scholars, asking them what they thought of my idea. Several said they'd always meant to translate the letters themselves and that the subject was not only worthy, but so emotional it would break my heart. Then I knew I couldn't miss.

What convinced you that Galileo's replies to his daughter have in fact disappeared? How much of his correspondence with others survives?

There's no doubt that they've disappeared. The question is, will they turn up again? No one has ever found any of these letters, despite repeated searching, whereas hundreds of the estimated four thousand letters that Galileo wrote to his contemporary scientists all over Europe have been retrieved and preserved. Most likely the mother abbess, who would have discovered years' worth of saved letters at Maria Celeste's death, destroyed them all. I suppose it is possible that the letters were merely misplaced and might yet surface someday. I love the thought of that, but I don't really expect it to happen.

The letters bring to life many fascinating details about daily existence in Renaissance Italy, from the plague to gardening to folk remedies to family finances. What surprised you most about daily life in this period? About the way that Galileo and his family lived?

I was astounded to learn how much time was passed in illness, how even the well-to-do suffered repeatedly from ailments that could not be treated for lack of good medical knowledge. As for Galileo himself, it is remarkable to look at the mountain of his achievements in the light of his mysterious recurrent illness, which confined him to bed for several weeks or months every other year of his entire adult life. Maria Celeste was constantly fabricating herbal remedies for his various complaints. She medicated herself, too, and even pulled her own teeth.

Why didn't Galileo marry Marina Gamba, the mother of his children? Certainly there is no talk of her or of any other woman in Galileo's life in his daughter's letters. Why do you think he never married?

Only Galileo and Marina Gamba know the whole truth here, but several obvious conditions may have ruled out wedlock, including the difference in social standing between the two of them. Galileo came from a highly respected, if not wealthy, family that had served the Tuscan government, while Marina's lineage was undistinguished—and Venetian to boot. Galileo, who planned to return to Florence as soon as possible, might have wondered how he could explain a Venetian wife at the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Also, scholars of Galileo's time tended not to marry. Maria Celeste never mentions her mother because Marina had died well before the date of the first surviving letter.

Has Galileo's private life been neglected by previous biographers, and if so why?

His private life has not really been neglected by scholars, but most did not consider his daughter a worthy object of study. Her letters, though included in Galileo's complete works and published in Italy, never appeared in a complete translation in any other language. Perhaps she was forgotten because she did so much less in the world than he. But she turns out to have been powerfully good in her own right, deeply interesting as a personality, and an important key to her father's complexity.

What was it like to visit the convent of San Matteo, which Suor Maria Celeste never left after the age of thirteen?

It was a little like seeing a ghost. The convent is greatly changed now, having been modernized considerably, with only a few original frescoes still visible in the halls and inhabited by Carmelite fathers instead of nuns. I thought Maria Celeste might have been pleased to know this, as the Carmelites were her favourite order to have as father confessors. The outside grounds, rolling down hills covered with olive and almond trees, probably have not changed much since the seventeenth century. The most moving moment for me was seeing the convent from the window of Galileo's study in his own house around the corner and realizing how close to each other they had lived.

In one letter she refers to the convent as a prison. Do you think she ever resented her confinement?

Her reference to the convent as a prison came at a time when Galileo faced a possible prison sentence in the dungeons of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. She had taken over the recitation of prayers he was supposed to repeat as part of his punishment, and she was looking to make any other sacrifice on his behalf. This sentiment inspired her commitment, "Therefore had I been able to substitute myself in the rest of your punishment, most willingly would I elect a prison even straighter than this one in which I dwell, if by so doing I could set you at liberty." The rest of the time I think she resigned herself admirably to her confinement and appreciated the importance of her work, which involved praying for the souls of the world.

Why do you think it took the Vatican so long to reverse its condemnation of Galileo and his book? What other important works of science have been on the Catholic Church's Index of Prohibited Books? What books are listed today?

The Galileo case brims with so many tough theological questions and so many presumed conspiracies that it will probably remain a topic of interest and debate for centuries to come. The current pope, well aware that the treatment of Galileo still rankles Catholics and non-Catholics alike, called for a twenty-year re-examination of the events surrounding his trial. This led to an official 1992 statement by John Paul II, conceding that Galileo had suffered much and decrying the division between science and faith. Unfortunately, His Holiness's efforts to put the matter in perspective attracted ridicule. Sanctions against Galileo's banned book, the Dialogue, were finally lifted in 1822, although a new edition of the Index reflecting this change was not published until 1835. I'm not sure I can name any other famous science books that have been listed in the Index. Charles Darwin's Origin of Species never appeared on it, nor did the works of Sigmund Freud, apparently because no one agitated to put them there. The Index itself no longer wields any power. The twentieth and final edition of it came out in 1948, and it was reduced to the status of a historical document in 1966.

How was the experience of writing this book different from that of writing your previous book, Longitude? What challenges did it pose?

The success of Longitude allowed me to devote myself full time to the writing of Galileo's Daughter. This was a luxury I had never enjoyed before. I was very glad to have the time and to take a long time—five years—because the story of Galileo's Daughter required much more research. The translations alone took up the first year. One of the challenges was having had a previous success! People kept asking me if this book would be another small, short story just like Longitude. And I would answer no, this story is an epic tragedy, and it calls for an entirely different approach.

What are you working on now?

I am writing a book about the planets of our solar system. My interest in astronomy is the theme that unites Longitude, Galileo's Daughter and this current project.

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