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url 2016-12-04 02:46
The Best Science Books of 2016
Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space - Janna Levin
The Polar Bear - Jenni Desmond
Time Travel: A History - James Gleick
The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time by Maria Konnikova (2016-01-12) - Maria Konnikova
Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell by Alexandra Horowitz (2016-10-04) - Alexandra Horowitz
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World - Rachel Ignotofsky
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars - Dava Sobel
Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time (MIT Press) - Marc Wittmann,Erik Butler
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life - Ed Yong
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World - Peter Wohlleben

Listen to the best books of science 2016. Nice introduction. 


There are more books that I could link, so have a listen. 

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review 2016-10-15 00:15
Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel
Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love - Dava Sobel

Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of his daughter Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has crafted a biography that dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishments of a mythic figure whose early-seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion-the man Albert Einstein called "the father of modern physics-indeed of modern science altogether." It is also a stunning portrait of Galileo's daughter, a person hitherto lost to history, described by her father as "a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me." Moving between Galileo's grand public life and Maria Celeste's sequestered world, Sobel illuminates the Florence of the Medicis and the papal court in Rome during the pivotal era when humanity's perception of its place in the cosmos was about to be overturned. During that same time, while the bubonic plague wreaked its terrible devastation and the Thirty Years' War tipped fortunes across Europe, Galileo sought to reconcile the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic with the heavens he revealed through his telescope. Filled with human drama and scientific adventure, Galileo's Daughter is an unforgettable story.





Likely you're already pretty familiar with the name Galileo Galilei, but if not, here's a rundown for you. Galileo is now known as being one of the most famous (possibly THE most famous?) astronomers and mathematicians of the 17th century. His work and studies also earned him the titles of physicist, inventor, and professor (teaching courses in mathematics and military architecture at various Italian universities, even teaching some of the Medici children for a time).



What Galileo might be more well known for now is him being placed under indefinite house arrest after being so bold as to come out and proclaim that the universe might, in fact, NOT revolve around Earth. He goes on to say that not only Earth but all the other planets rotate around the sun! GASP! We can laugh now, having centuries to benefit from being privy to astounding advancements in the field of astronomy, but back in Galileo's day, his statement was considered full on heresy. Funny thing though, he wasn't even the first guy to put forth the idea! In the year 1600, just a year before Galileo's first daughter, Virginia (the daughter referenced in Sobel's title), was born, Friar Giordano Bruno posed the same idea. Know what happened to him? BURNED AT THE STAKE. Church was not having your new fangled scientific theories back then.


In Galileo's case, he was a deeply devout Catholic, but he was also a firm supporter of the ideas of Copernicus, one example being when Galileo took on Monsignor Francesco Ignoli, Secretary of the Congregation of Propogation Of The Faith (imagine trying to order letterhead for that office!). In a letter addressed to Galileo, Ignoli relentlessly bashed all of Copernicus' major points. At first Galileo chose to not respond. Not wanting to "feed the trolls" as us in the online crowd commonly like to call it, he initially didn't see much point in offering a comeback. But when he started to notice that his silence was being interpreted as acceptance of Ignoli's views, THEN Galileo felt compelled to set the record straight. 


from Galileo's response letter to Monsignor Ignoli


Galileo sent off his 50 page "Reply to Ignoli" to friends and family in Rome in October of 1624. Curiously, because of lengthy delays caused by changes Prince Cesi and other Roman colleagues wished to insert for prudence's sake, the "Reply to Ignoli" never reached Ignoli himself. A few manuscript copies circulated cautiously around Rome, however, and the pope was treated to at least a partial private reading in December. No explosion erupted from Urban in reaction to the "Reply". Indeed, His Holiness remarked on the aptness of its examples and experiments. And therefore, no apparent obstacle stood in the way of Galileo's expressing the same ideas in a book, which he now envisioned as a playlike discussion among a group of fictional friends, with the working title "Dialogue on the Tides"

~ from Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel


By June 1630, Dialogue on the Tides was approved for publication, but with stipulations. Galileo was informed that the pope disliked the working title, and the preface and ending must be altered to reflect the pope's philosophy on science which meant that Galileo's text needed to have a more obvious lean toward "the mysterious omnipotence of God", as Sobel phrases it. Didn't matter what Galileo was proving or disproving with scientific fact. The back and forth on the stipulations caused the actual publication of Galileo's book to be delayed until February 1632. Nearly 2 years of haggling! Even with negotiations, being approved for publication, all of that... the Vatican was not pleased with the final product. In fact, they were so upset, by September of 1632 an order was sent out for the book to cease being sold and Galileo got summons from his local Inquisition panel. Galileo's health was extremely frail during this time, his doctors even advising that he not be moved from his home, but the Vatican's response to the news was that either Galileo show his face willingly or prepare to come in in shackles. Seeing no other choice but to submit, Galileo made his travel arrangements but not without first making sure his will was up to date!


During his Inquisition interviews, Galileo admitted that he went back and read over the text after publication and found holes in some of his reasonings, areas that lacked sufficient scientific proof. (BTW, Sobel's book here includes a transcript of Galileo's actual testimony during those interviews). Even so, the then 70 year old and sickly Galileo was still charged with heresy and given indefinite house arrest. Interestingly though, even with this verdict, there were three men on the deciding panel who REFUSED to sign their names to the written verdict! It is rumored that Galileo muttered "but it still moves" under his breath after signing his own name to the affidavit, but Sobel argues that Galileo wouldn't have been so stupid as to say such a thing in front of a group of men who held such power over his life at that moment (though I have to admit, if it DID happen, that would've been pretty badass of the guy!).


As for the book itself, Dialogue of the Tides (the "working" title stayed put through all this) was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1664 and remained there for nearly 200 years. Still, copies of the work traveled through various black markets across Europe (an English translation was even printed up in 1661). Though under house arrest, Galileo continued to offer tutoring / mentorship services within his home and went on to write more books on theories of motion and mechanics. The Two New Sciences was published in 1638. It was weeks before he was sent his own copy but by then his struggles with cataracts & glaucoma had become too much of a problem for him to be able to read much of anything. It's been speculated by some historians (going by the scientist's surviving correspondence where he describes struggles with constant pain) that in his later years he may also struggled with gout, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney stones, hernia issues, chronic eye infections and insomnia (probably as a result from all the physical pain!) before finally succumbing to death in January 1642.


All this on Galileo, why haven't I mentioned the daughter yet? Well, truthfully I have a bit of an issue with this book having the title Galileo's Daughter because in actuality much of what I read was just about the man himself; scenes of the daughter being interjected here and there but not as strongly as one might presume judging from this title. In fact, Sobel barely references the daughter in this title  -- except to mention her birth and taking her convent vows -- until about 100 pages in. We get to know her a bit and then she frequently pops back out of the spotlight except through excerpts of her letters to her father from time to time. But here is what I gathered about this woman largely lost to history (but less so than her siblings!): Galileo's eldest daughter, born Virginia, was the eldest of three illegitimate children Galileo fathered. Because Galileo never married Virginia's mother, Virginia herself was deemed "unmarriageable", so it was decided she would join convent life. Thanks dad!




It's all good though. Virginia actually took quite well to the nunnery, being placed with the Florentine order of the Poor Clares at the age of 13; the Poor Clares being a sisterhood of voluntary extreme poverty. Extreme even by "took an oath of poverty" standards. Not only were their habits made of the roughest material, but their meager pantries were kept to only what was absolutely necessary for survival. It was not uncommon for sisters to be bordering on starvation in order to feel closer to God. In the days of Sister Clare herself, the Vatican actually feared the woman WOULD starve herself to death!


Virginia took the name Sister Celeste as a nod to her father's work and general love of stars, which she greatly admired. The strong bond between Galileo and his eldest was largely due to Celeste being the most curious and intelligent (in his opinion) of his children. Another of Galileo's daughters, Livia, also joined the same convent shortly after her sister, taking the wickedly cool name Sister Arcangela, but had much more of a struggle acclimating to the environment. Many of Celeste's letters in this book make brief mention of Livia's somewhat morose attitude most days, one letter plainly stating "Livia is already displaying a morbid tendency to melancholy and withdrawal that would shade her adult personality." Livia's struggles made me feel for her and also made me more curious about her in general but sadly Sobel doesn't go into much detail about this daughter, perhaps just because there's even less about her than Celeste.


While I found Celeste's letters interesting, I was surprised at how few were actually included in this book, seeing as how the synopsis references how Sobel "crafts a narrative from 124 surviving letters between father and daughter." Sister Celeste seemed like a woman with a good bit of depth too her but I also felt like she was sometimes WAY too hard on herself, in some letters referring to herself as someone of "meager intelligence" or writing to her father to profusely apologize for things that struck me as insubstantial errors or wrongdoings. Humility is admirable, but not when it starts to border on self abuse. 


Overall, for the amount of information Sobel covers in this dual biography of sorts, while I didn't find the writing style itself consistently, 100% engaging, the approach I would say is definitely accessible to the average reader. It's a solidly entertaining and educational read for those interested in Galileo or the time in which he lived. There is also an element to Galileo's life story that can inspire thinkers and dreamers of today's world. Think about it -- the guy was willing to challenge not only his own religious upbringing and beliefs that went against his research, but also fellow scientists who were comfortably stuck in their ways, in order to unlock the mysteries of the natural world. His life's work is proof that the naysaying of "haters" as we label them today is based in fear and discomfort with the unknown. Was he always in the right? No, not always, but at least he was brave enough to branch out and challenge himself and others! 

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review 2016-09-27 22:51
Review of Longitude by Dava Sobel
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time - Neil Armstrong,Dava Sobel

A short, fascinating book about a topic that you wouldn't think all that interesting - longitude. The book looks at the historical challenge for sailors not being able to figure out what their longitude was while at sea, and the contest for scientists (or clockmakers as it turns out) to come up with an accurate method to determine longitude at sea.


I really enjoyed this read. I liked the debate between those who wanted to use the stars and those who wanted to develop an accurate clock that could keep perfect time at sea. I won't say more so I don't give away the story, but worth a read for anyone interested in the 18th century, the age of sail, or just a good story.

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review 2016-06-15 23:12
Galileo's Daughter
Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love - Dava Sobel

One-sentence summary: though it has the title Galileo's Daughter, this is an ordinary, relatively superficial, definitely uncritical biography of Galileo himself, with its only "innovation" being the interwoven portions of his daughter's 124 extant letters.


A little background. Galileo had two daughters and a son by Marina Gamba of Venice: Virginia, Livia, and Vincenzio. He supported all three of his children, and eventually had the Grand Duke of Tuscany legitimize Vincenzio as his son. Virginia and Livia were consigned to a convent, "for their safety," and because Galileo thought their marriage prospects as bastard children were not good. They became Suor Maria Celeste and Suor Arcangela. Ms. Sobel perpetuates the notion that Marina eventually married a man named Giovanni Bartoluzzi, and that Galileo had a cordial relationship with them, purchasing lens blanks for his telescopes from Giovanni. However, Marina Bartoluzzi is probably a different Marina, and was entrusted with the care of young Vincenzio after mother Marina's death in 1612. If that's true, Marina Gamba may have suffered the same fate as Suor Maria Celeste—death through neglect by the man in her life who held the purse strings—though we'll never know.

Feminist history? Nope. It's really just a standard, textbook review of Galileo's life, without a rigorous presentation of his scientific work, yet without a real contribution of the feminine or family point of view that the title promises. Suor Maria Celeste's letters are dropped in at appropriate chronological moments, but only where they fit into Galileo's well-trodden biography—a biography that has been done by other authors before Ms. Sobel, and I hope better. What I wanted to get more to the heart of was: why did Galileo put his daughters in a convent? He worked very hard to get them in before the canonical age of sixteen, and called in a few favors to do it. What else could he have put that considerable effort toward? What were the other alternatives at the time? Had any fathers of illegitimate children done better for their daughters during this time period? Why did he not re-think his decision as they approached the canonical age—when they had to either take their vows or leave? What was Maria Celeste's life in the convent like, and what could her life have been like had a different choice been made? Could Virginia and Livia have run his household, as spinster daughters? Could they have been married to someone decent in the merchant class, or a town butcher, baker, or candlestick maker? Even though Maria Celeste's letters don't elucidate her specific circumstance, a more energetic historian might have fleshed out that world for us based on documented reports of similar young women in similar circumstances. It would have helped us to see what kind of man Galileo was, given the choice he did make. Similarly, the reasons for not marrying Marina are tossed out as if they're immutable: professors don't marry (really?); his Venetian-nobility contacts wouldn't like the fact that he had illegitimate children (why?); Marina was of too low a class for him to marry (did this never happen at the time?). The impression a cynical reader finds between the lines (though Ms. Sobel would never say it) is that Galileo's ambition was always return to Tuscany as the Duke's Mathematician, and he was perpetually preparing to dump Marina as soon as the call came.
Where is the original angle of this book? Even wikipedia will tell you that Galileo put the girls in a convent because they were illegitimate and he thought their prospects for marriage were therefore poor. Even Wikipedia will tell you the Rules of the St. Clare of Assisi (female Franciscan) convents. Ms. Sobel's only addition to the historical narrative seems to be her speculation that the impending inquisition may have made Galileo hurry (and then not re-think) the decision to send his daughters to convents.  
No critical analysis of Galileo. To me, the most important line in the book is Galileo's own admission that he is "full of self hatred" after Maria Celeste's death. THIS is what I want the book to be about. Sobel passes over that massive line with zero commentary. And that's because the whole book is an overly reverential view of a scientist, not an attempt to flesh out anything new about the man. Ms. Sobel treats this line as a commentary solely on the deep affection between father and daughter.
Scientific details are passed over, and even documentary ones. Given that it's not a feminist contribution, and it's not an exploration of Galileo as a father, and that it's really just a biography, there should have been more scientific detail. Otherwise, this is no better than a high school textbook, or a fan website. Why is Galileo's version of the spyglass (later named the telescope) better than Hans Lippershey's model? If his refinement was in the lenses, why were his lenses better? Was it the Murano glass, or his personal grinding? Did he grind the lenses himself from the blanks he purchased? Did he ignore the moon's influence on tides simply through his zeal to bolster Copernicus's model of the earth moving around the sun, or was he unaware of the moon's influence? How could he have clung so resolutely to the "sloshing" explanation of tides, given that his model wasn't fully predictive? Even medical details are poetic rather than factual: in the end, Sobel says that Suor Maria Celeste succumbed to dysentery because she had literally worried herself into a state of weakness over Galileo—that she died of a broken heart. 
Maria Celeste's life was a literal prison. Her sister, Livia, lived longer than she did, but fared worse emotionally. There are hints at Suor Arcangela's depression, at her possible resentment of her father's decision to the point of perhaps refusing to write letters to him, but Ms. Sobel doesn't investigate further. (I realize there's no evidence for Livia's feelings in the historical record, but there must be recorded observations about other, unrelated conscripted Clare nuns.) The sisters' only outside contact was through an iron grill, separating them from their visitors. Their vow of poverty meant they were sleeping without warm blankets (unless they could beg them from their families), on hard cots, consistently without enough food, depending on alms. I'm fascinated by Maria Celeste's ability to become a truly pious nun—hardworking, obedient, humble, generous, and loving—in spite of her conditions. That's perhaps a more interesting story than a superficial rehash of the life of a seemingly "faultless" Galileo. In yet another bit of flimsy research, Sobel tells us that one of the convent's sisters' brothers bequeathed his estate to the convent before Maria Celeste's death, with an income and an endowed fund to take care of the staff who tended the property. Yet we know nothing about whether that income improved their living conditions. If Sobel couldn't find out about this particular event and its outcome, I would have liked to have heard of other similar historical examples. But Sobel has not researched at a level that would bring other historical material to bear on this situation.
In sum. This book is reasonably good, but not remarkable. The fact that it's so popular indicates to me that there's a supply problem: people are interested in popular books about the history of science, which is great, and there's not enough of it out there. But this particular effort seems to me to suffer a bit from shallow research. Ms. Sobel's real contribution is the translation of 124 letters (which she kindly uploaded to the "Galileo Project" website). But that contribution does not a book make. There are too many missed opportunities, and there's no new view of Galileo from the daughter's perspective, or from the historical perspective of what family structure was like at the time. I wish this book had been more substantive in any research dimension: daughters in convents, illegitimate children, marriages between classes, Galileo's science, Galileo's contemporary critics—anything, pick one. My preference would have been for Ms. Sobel to focus the family issues, since surely other biographers have done the science and inquisition better, and since Maria Celeste's letters are the conceit of the book. I suspect that Galileo's "self-hatred" was because he realized that he had put his daughters in the convent for expediency's sake and then essentially left them there to rot, distracted by his own greatness and place in history. While he was doling out a scudi here or there to the sisters, giving money when poor Maria Celeste quietly begged, or a basket of thrushes and quails when she pleaded, or a blanket here or there, he had utterly failed to realize the malnourishment and health issues of his daughter (she had lost most of her teeth), which he could have mitigated at least financially, since he had failed to spend any of his vast brain power trying to arrange a way out for her and her sister earlier on.
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text 2014-10-17 13:38
October #bookadayuk - Days 12-14
Longitude - Dava Sobel
Animal Farm & 1984 - George Orwell,Christopher Hitchens
The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse - Robert Rankin

Been away at conferences all this week, so I’m a bit behind.


Longitude – Dava Sobel

Subtitled “The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time”, Longitude tells the story of William Harrison and the invention of the chronometer. When the bookseller recommended it, I have to confess that I may have rolled my eyes a little. But she convinced me that it was an excellent read. And she was right. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to be at sea, with no sign of land and no GPS.


Animal Farm – George Orwell

I first read this one when I was about 12 years old, and while I knew there was more to it than a story about animals, I didn’t really understand all the political history behind it. I read it again a few years later when I was studying European history and it suddenly made a lot more sense.


The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse – Robert Rankin

Come on! How can you not want to read that?

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