Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel is an American writer of popular expositions of scientific topics. Sobel has published in scientific journals, newspapers, magazines, and has written several books.

Dava Sobel is a science writer. She spent many years as a journalist, writing a column for The New York Times, as well as freelance articles for many magazines, including Science Digest, Discover, and The New Yorker. She has since written four books, including Galileo’s Daughter (1999), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for science and technology. This historical memoir incorporates letters from Galileo’s daughter, which were translated from Italian to English by Sobel herself. A More Perfect Heaven (2011), her most recent work detailing the life of Copernicus, is a nonfiction narrative surrounding a short play titled “And the Sun Stood Still.” In 2013, she will be the Joan Leiman Jacobson Writer-in-Residence at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She was interviewed by Mount Hope’s Leah Catania.


Mount Hope: What prompted you to take such different approaches with your presentations of Galileo and Copernicus’s lives? 


Dava Sobel: Well, they’re different stories, and I think the story shapes the telling of it. So for Galileo’s Daughter, I had a rich resource in her letters. So that shaped the book, the actual letters and the establishment of their relationship through that resource. There’s nothing like that available for Copernicus. I wouldn’t have done it the same way even if there had been, but what had interested me in the Copernicus story from the beginning was the unlikely visit from the young mathematician from Germany and trying to imagine their conversation, which I’d always thought of as a play. It just took me a long time to get up the nerve to try to write a play. 


MH: So you never thought of doing Copernicus’s story through excerpts of his letters or his correspondents’ letters or anything like that? 


DS: Well there are only seventeen letters that survived, so they just don’t have it. It’s not as though I chose not to use it; it’s not there. Galileo left more than a thousand letters. You really have something to work with. Whereas with Copernicus, partly because it was longer ago, partly because of the war situation in Poland, so much material was lost. These seventeen letters all existed in the original between World War I and World War II, and now it’s a good thing copies of them were made, because the originals are gone for several more. Any time you look at a region where there’s been bombing, fires, and all the awful things that come with war aside from the human costs, records and artifacts disappear. 


MH: Do you feel as though your different styles in both books, because of those letters, lent to giving Galileo and Copernicus very distinct personalities? 


DS: Yes, well, they had distinct personalities, and that much becomes clear from reading their work and reading what remains of Copernicus’s correspondence, especially his notes about the time he spent in charge of the church’s lands. He had to be visiting the peasants and signing off on their land transactions. I thought the notes he made and the way he settled things showed him to be a very fair, even-handed person. 


MH: When you wrote about Galileo’s support of Copernicus, was that what inspired you to write more about Copernicus himself? 


DS: No, the initial inspiration for Copernicus was reading about him years ago at the start of the 500th anniversary year of his birth and finding out about this young student’s visit and thinking of the idea of the play. That was the initial inspiration. Then I didn’t think I could write a play, so I didn’t pursue it. But I had it in mind for a long time. Then, more recently, a few things happened to get my courage up to where it needed to be. One was—my son was in school as a drama major, drama and directing, and when I visited him at school, I remembered how much fun it was to do theatre. The dean of the drama school was very helpful to me, very encouraging, and read several of the early drafts of the play. Then also, Owen Gingerich, who is quoted in A More Perfect Heaven, and not just quoted but written about because of his chasing around the world after all the existing copies of Copernicus’s book. He wrote a book called The Book Nobody Read—which is about Copernicus’s book and about how he found more than 600 copies of it and was able to see who had written what in the margins. He wrote that up as a popular account and he asked me to read his manuscript before he submitted it to the publisher. That got me very excited about the Copernicus story again and I thought, at this point in my life, I’m ready to tackle something like learning how to write a play. And so, all those things came together. Then, as you know, at one point, my editor, who had agreed to publish the play—even though publishing plays is not something that Walker usually does—had the idea that I should take all the research I’d done and write a book around the play. So that’s how the book arrived at its final form. The narrative puts the play in context. 


MH: It hadn’t occurred to me that you would have thought of the play before you thought of doing the biography of Copernicus. 


DS: Well, early on, it seemed to me that there was—I mean, early on, from the time I first really learned about him—that there was so little information, just seventeen letters, not that much, and not that big a body of work that he had written, that it seemed I wouldn’t be able to say anything with confidence. That every other sentence would be, maybe this, or perhaps that or scholars think thus-and-so. So I avoided the idea of writing the book and just focused on the play. Then when I really realized how much there actually was, I thought, certainly there could be a narrative, especially like the one I constructed that goes up to the present time. It’s not completely focused on Copernicus, but it starts off completely focused on him, and then it puts him in the context of the events that followed. Because of his book, how the influence of that book spread, and what its status is today. 


MH: Do you think that both of your books show not only about the two scientists’ lives but also about the way that texts and books can affect the people that they are presented to and affect the societies they are published in? 


DS: Yes. Yes, I hope it continues to be true! Who knows what will happen with publishing in these times, but yes, I was very interested in that. Copernicus lived right around the time that publishing, especially publishing of scientific books, had just really become not only possible, but well-executed. The publisher he had did an extraordinary job of seeking out scientific manuscripts and making them available to a wide audience. It was a tremendous change in society. And Galileo, who took the other step of writing to a popular audience, not limiting himself to the Latin language and a scholarly readership. He was going for a broader audience of people who had been educated enough to be able to read their native language, but had, for one reason or another, not been able to attend university. He felt there was an intelligent class of laymen who were interested in science. 


MH: Do you think that could have been why there was such a larger outpouring of rejection for Galileo than Copernicus, because Galileo actually wrote his to be understood not just by the scholars, but by the general public? 


DS: Oh, certainly that’s why the Church was so outraged, why he had to be stopped. That was a dangerous idea. It’s hard to realize today what a dangerous idea that was. Between Copernicus’s and Galileo’s time, the Church had overreacted to the Protestant Reformation and had made a strong stand about an interpretation of the Bible so that no Catholic was allowed to have a personal interpretation of the Bible, whereas the Protestants were. Galileo, as a Catholic, was daring to say that the Bible mentions these things, but it’s not to be taken literally. He really was prohibited from saying that. But he said it! And suffered the consequences. 


MH: When you wrote Galileo’s Daughter, was one of your main purposes to show the world the ways that Galileo wasn’t an enemy of the Catholic Church, that he actually loved the Catholic Church? 


DS: Absolutely, to show that he was actually a Catholic, because the modern perception of him is that he was not religious, and he really was at odds with the Church. When I found out about the daughter, I realized that the situation was much more nuanced. The idea that he had done everything he did as a Catholic, not as an enemy of the Church, is much more interesting. Today, we still have an issue with science and religion. We have politicians who say things like “The Bible is enough for me,” and “If it’s not in the Bible, I don’t need to know about it.” I want to remind these people that even 400 years ago, Galileo was making a distinction. Galileo, as a Catholic, was making a distinction between the Bible and the Book of Nature and saying that you cannot learn any science from the Bible. That’s not what it’s for. 


MH: Do you think it’s more interesting to look at these great men of history from the perspectives of another person, like Galileo’s daughter and Rheticus? 


DS: It’s interesting because people are naturally drawn to stories that are more human. The name recognition that Galileo has makes people imagine him as a statue, not as the father of children. So it immediately makes him seem more accessible. Then their relationship made the larger point about his being religious. So again, to bring it to modern times, where people worry if you’re religious, can you be a good scientist? Obviously you can. Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler were all religious. It didn’t stop them from thinking about the natural world, doing the math, and having great ideas. In fact, it might have been inspirational to them. The problem is, as I said before, when because you feel religious, you think that the Bible tells you everything you know. That is the problem. But I definitely know astronomers and physicists who are devout in various religions. They believe in a created universe, but it doesn’t stop them from being scientists.