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Gazing Back at Galileo

Letters from astronomer's daughter tell of physics and faith.


Dava Sobel studied Italian in college for no apparent reason. But the decision became fortuitous years later when she decided to translate the letters Maria Celeste wrote to her father, Galileo, from her convent cell. Sobel wove the letters into a narrative in "Galileo's Daughter--A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love" (Walker & Co. $27).

She will discuss the book Monday at Cal Lutheran University's Samuelson Chapel. The event is free and open to the public.

Sobel learned about Galileo's daughter while working on her first book, "Longitude," which became a New York Times best seller for 41 weeks, was translated into 23 languages and is in its 23rd hardcover printing.

Her research unearthed Maria Celeste.

"There she was, right in a book specifically about Galileo's efforts to solve the longitude problem," Sobel said. "The author had included a letter from her in which she was trying to fix the clock in the convent."

Modern commentary tends to pitch the story of Galileo Galilei--the man Einstein called the father of modern physics--as a case of science vs. religion, but it isn't that at all, Sobel said. In fact, Galileo had tried to enter a monastery. But when his telescopes reinforced his conviction that the Earth moved around the sun, his belief was considered heretical by the Catholic Church, and he spent the remaining years of his life under house arrest.

Once Sobel learned about Maria Celeste, she knew she wanted to write about the relationship between Galileo and the daughter he placed in a convent at the age of 13. The strongest element of the story for her was the father-daughter relationship. Sobel, who was very close to her father, recalled going through his things after he died and discovering a letter that he had saved from her.

"I was two years into writing this book before I remembered that incident and I realized that had something to do with why her letters appealed to me so strongly," she said.

She credits her Italian tutor, who had spent her Catholic girlhood in Italy, and a nun, who lived very much the way Galileo's daughter had lived in the convent, with being helpful in understanding Maria Celeste. Even more, she credits her editor, George Gibson, who told her she had to pare down the letters from 100 to 14.

"It was awful," Sobel said. "I put my head down on the table and cried. But once I got over it, we each made a list and agreed on all but one." As a result, she said, the book became much stronger.

Sobel discovered Galileo fans everywhere, in a great underground network, she said. People actually make a living, or part of a living, putting on evenings of music and reading while pretending to be him. This was the opposite of her "Longitude" book.

"Nobody had heard of [longitude originator John] Harrison, and I really thought nobody would care. But it was the success that turned my life upside down," she said.

Coming from a family of scientists--her mother trained as a chemist and her father was a general practitioner--she said she didn't feel she had the temperament to be one herself. Luckily, she found a way to indulge her interests. A self-proclaimed perpetual student, she said getting lost in a university library would be paradise for her.

Her next project is a series of essays on the solar system.


* Today: 10:30 a.m. Story time with a visit from Winnie the Pooh. Thousand Oaks Barnes & Noble, 160 S. Westlake Blvd., 446-2820.

* Today: 10:30 a.m. Archer Mayor will discuss and sign "The Marble Mask." At 4 p.m., Peter Robinson will discuss and sign "Cold Is the Grave." Mysteries to Die For, 2940 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, 374-0084.

* Today: 7 p.m. Rudy Yakzan will discuss his books, "Soccer for Everyone" and "105 Practical Soccer Drills." Ventura Barnes & Noble, 4360 E. Main St., 339-9170.

* Sunday: 2 p.m. Book signing and presentation by David Austin, author of "The Unfinished Cross." Thousand Oaks Barnes & Noble, 446-2820.

* Monday: 10 a.m. Dava Sobel will discuss "Galileo's Daughter--A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love." Samuelson Chapel, Cal Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks, 493-3151.

* Monday: 4:30 p.m. Author Sean Diviny and illustrator Joe Rocco will read "Halloween Motel." Thousand Oaks Barnes & Noble, 446-2820.

* Tuesday: 9:30 a.m. Story time about "Miss Spider." Ventura Barnes & Noble, 339-9170.

* Tuesday: 4:30 p.m. Famous people and folklore. This month features author/illustrator Maurice Sendak. Thousand Oaks Barnes & Noble, 446-2820.

* Tuesday: 7 p.m. Discussion and book signing by Paul and Sarah Edwards on "The Practical Dreamer's Handbook." Borders, 125 W. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, 497-8159.

* Tuesday: 7 p.m. Monthly poetry workshop. Borders, Thousand Oaks, 497-8159.

* Wednesday: 7 p.m. Crafts and stories about the "American Girls" collection and the "History Mysteries." Ventura Barnes & Noble, 339-9170.

* Wednesday: 8 p.m. Poetry Workshop. Ventura Barnes & Noble, 339-9170.

* Wednesday: 7 p.m. Discussion and signing by Benjamin R. Kaplan on "How to Go to College Almost for Free." Thousand Oaks Barnes & Noble, 446-2820.

* Friday: 7 p.m. Story time on the "Wizard of Oz," with screening of the movie. Borders, Thousand Oaks, 497-8159.

* Friday: 7 p.m. Wear your Halloween costume and have some treats. Ventura Barnes & Noble, 339-9170.

Information about book signings, writers groups and publishing events can be e-mailed to or faxed to 647-5649.

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