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Virginia Stem Owens


Galileo Had a Daughter

Science is always entangled in the particulars of a time and place.

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love, by Dava Sobel, Penguin, 420 pp.; $14

The artificial barriers we have created to define academic disciplines often blind us to the hydrodynamics of human history, which is, by nature, a fluid medium. Religion, economics, politics, agriculture, art, domestic arrangements, science—every aspect of civilization constantly exerts or yields to pressure, gains or loses velocity, spurts ahead, eddies sideways, or stagnates, according to what's happening elsewhere in the river.

The artificial barriers were inevitable, of course. Even the most erudite among us cannot carry around inside their heads the great flood of human civilization. Cybernetic overload makes it difficult to remember, for example, that Galileo published his Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems, Rembrandt painted The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, and the second folio of Shakespeare's plays appeared during the same year—1632. Or that Galileo and Shakespeare were born the same year, 1564—the year that Michelangelo died. Or that during Galileo's house arrest for his publication of the Dialogue, he was visited by luminaries no less bright or politically contrary than Thomas Hobbes and the young John Milton.

Yet that string of births, deaths, and encounters gives us a better sense than do period labels of how Time, like an ever-rolling stream, not only bears all its sons away but ceaselessly alters the contours of civilization. Handy though the terms "Renaissance" and "Enlightenment" may be, they give the unfortunate impression that history arrives in discrete chunks rather than as events so seamless we are rarely aware of their significance at the time. This is, after all, the way we experience our own lives, as a wash of contingency.

It is this sense of how historical watersheds emerge from the murky quotidian that Dava Sobel (author of Longitude) captures so deftly in Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and ...

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