Galileo finds himself back in the news

Recently I’ve been interviewed twice about Galileo for broadcast news outlets. BBC Radio 4 was interested in my view of Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition, while New York City’s Channel 13 wanted me to discuss the significance of his book The Starry Messenger, published in 1610 to announce his startling telescope discoveries.

Although Galileo has been dead more than 350 years, his lilting name remains synonymous with the imagined rift between science and faith. The BBC series “Science and Religion: The Phony War,” produced by Dan Tierney and presented by Nick Spencer, will air sometime this summer (2019). I didn’t have to travel all the way to London for the interview, but only as far as the recording studio at the BBC’s New York office in lower Manhattan. For nearly an hour, I sat in a tiny room, wearing headphones and speaking into an ultra-sensitive microphone. Every time I shifted in my chair, Dan or Nick complained of a tiny but audible squeak, and asked me to repeat myself. I learned to hold so still that the motion sensor judged the room unoccupied, and the lights switched off automatically.

Galileo’s books, which were both famous and infamous in his lifetime, have since become valuable collector’s items. As such, they are increasingly attractive to thieves and forgers. “Galileo’s Moon,” an episode in the PBS series called “Secrets of the Dead,” describes the genesis of what was purported to be Galileo’s own proof copy of The Starry Messenger, complete with his hand-painted watercolors depicting the cratered face of the Moon. Producer Stephanie Carter interviewed me as a “talking head” in the library at Columbia University, where I got to fondle and page through a bona fide copy of the volume. I have no idea what snippets of my comments appear in the final cut, but I’ll find out when the program airs July 2 on Channel 13.

How to say "Glass Universe" in Chinese

            I’m delighted to report that The Glass Universe will soon be published in a Chinese-language edition, and the translator is my friend Xiao Mingbo, whom I met more than ten years ago, when he translated Longitude.

            At the start of our working relationship, I thought Mingbo was a woman, and he assumed I was a man. The long-distance misunderstanding did not hinder us at all, however, as we began corresponding about shades of meaning and idiomatic expressions in my text.

            When Mingbo first approached me, in July 2006, Longitude had already been translated into some two dozen languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Thai. But, fortunately for me, the book’s continuing popularity had led to a tenth-anniversary edition in 2005, with a foreword by astronaut Neil Armstrong, and this new edition was enjoying a new round of attention from international publishers. 

Dear Dava,

This is Mingbo Xiao [he had put his given name first, American style, instead of after his family name as is customary in his country] from China. I am translating one of your books, Longitude, into Chinese. This book was translated and published by another company in 2000, but it turns out to be not very satisfactory, so I was asked to redo the translation.

I accepted the task, because I like the book and want to present it with high quality to Chinese readers.

I have encountered some difficulties and expect more as I proceed. I wish you could help me out. Could you please clarify the following items for me? 

         Mingbo had listed six specific questions concerning expressions such as “landed son” and “passing fair,” but what struck me about the letter was its invitation to a collaboration. No other translator, from any country, had ever tried to engage me this way. I had exchanged brief comments with the Polish and Hebrew translators, but nothing to compare with Mingbo’s hunger for the nuances of meaning. 

         One often wonders about the quality of the translations of one’s books, but an author has no control over the issue. Each publishing house chooses its own translators, who seem to work in a vacuum. The author never sees the translation until it appears in print (and sometimes not even then). Unless a friend in a foreign country reads the translation and reports back, neither the author nor the original publisher has any way to judge the outcome. Mingbo, apparently self-motivated, had taken untoward action, aided by the Internet.     

When I searched for "Kort Onderwys" [a Dutch book title mentioned in Longitude], I was led to Prof. Mario Biagioli's homepage in Harvard. He answered some of my questions, but he didn't have your email either, so he referred me to Prof. Owen Gingerich. From Dr. Gingerich, I got your email. From you, I get all my puzzles solved. What a wonderful world!

BTW, I got to know my editor via the Internet as well, when we met in a nice website of used-book transaction.

         My own experience of translating the letters of Galileo’s daughter had helped me appreciate the difficulty of selecting a single right word from among any number of synonym candidates. And that’s the easy part of the translator’s job. The real challenge is to absorb the spirit and tone of the original, and transfer that into the target language, despite all the untranslatable intangibles that separate the cultures speaking the different languages. Mingbo thrived in this danger zone. No sooner had he questioned the term “straw man,” for example, than he answered it himself, before giving me a chance to react.

I think I found a good Chinese word for it. That word literally means  a board taken as a shield to receive the attack of arrows, and implies something like a scapegoat or a forced protector.

In fact, there is a famous legendary story in ancient China related to the straw man. In the period of three kingdom (around 200 A. D.), two countries were in war. One party was much stronger than the other. The commander of the weaker one predicted that there would be thick fog one morning, so he prepared many boats with many straw men posted on both sides. When the foggy day came, he led boats out and pretended for sneak attacks. When the boats were within the arrow-shooting range of the enemy battleships, all drums were beaten and all soldiers shouted. The enemy dared not come out to meet the challenge but shot arrows at the boats. The straw men received most of the arrows and looked like hedgehogs in the end. So the weaker army got tons of free arrows, which helped to beat the strong enemy :).

Mingbo often apologized for asking so many questions, but of course I was thrilled to have them—and to have my own private tutor in Chinese lore. I was flattered, too, to think of the time and care invested in this new translation. Naturally I wondered whether Mingbo was being adequately compensated. I didn’t ask that directly, as I didn’t want to be rude, but he volunteered the information as we went along.

I must confess the payment for the translation is not very handsome, only 50 Yuan Per 1000 Chinese characters (equivalently, about $5 per 1000 words). 

Mingbo was translating purely for the love of books. I later learned he owns ten thousand volumes, most of which he acquired second-hand. He is not a professional translator, but a university professor, with research interests in wireless networking and mobile communications. He admitted he’d been a poor language student in his youth, but later mastered English to pursue graduate study in the United States. He and his wife had lived (and fished and traveled) in America for six years. During that time, Mingbo earned his doctoral degree from Neil Armstrong’s alma mater, Purdue University, in Indiana, where his daughter was born in 2001.

To make our correspondence less serious, I attach a picture of my adorable and creative daughter.

         The child, who was three at the time the photo was taken, had her face completely hidden by the deadbolt door lock she was holding up to her eye and pretending to use as a camera. Later Mingbo sent me other pictures as well, of the family vacation at Huangshan, with views from the top and the bottom of the Yellow Mountain.

         In November 2006, as Mingbo neared completion of his translation of Longitude, he signed a new contract with Shanghai Century to translate another of my books, The Planets. He expressed some concern about his lack of familiarity with the material, but neither his publisher nor I saw the least reason to worry. Mingbo’s work ethic guaranteed the level of effort he would devote to the task. What’s more, I had intended the book expressly for people who knew little or nothing about astronomy.

         Mingbo had apparently undertaken the new translation at a propitious moment.


According to Chinese tradition, tomorrow will be the Mid-Autumn Festival, when the moon is brightest and fullest at night. On this day, the Chinese will try their best to bring the whole family together, just as the western reunite in the Christmas eve.  Delicious moon cakes and wine will be consumed at the night to celebrate the festival. Many beautiful poems have been written for such occasions, especially when the dear ones are somehow unable to make the reunion.

Here Mingbo typed out for me two of his favorite seasonal poems, “When Shall We Have a Bright Moon?” by Su Shi, and “Looking at the Moon and Longing for One Far Away,” by Zhang Jiuling. Acknowledging the inadequacy of most poetry translations, he gave me four versions of the second poem, each by a different translator. This one is by Xu Yuanchong:

Over the sea grows the moon bright;

We gaze on it far, far apart.

Lovers complain of long, long night;

They rise and long for the dear heart.

Candles blown out, fuller is light;

My coat put on, I'm moist with dew.

As I can't hand you moonbeams white,

I go to bed to dream of you.

After that outpouring of Moonlight, I didn’t hear from Mingbo for six months.

Long time no contact. How are you? 

By May, he had returned to me in earnest, with new and longer lists of questions.

Sorry for the new round of bombing. I have the following questions for the first five chapters. 

We resumed our back-and-forth routine with the familiarity of old friends. 

It is interesting to learn that you thought I was a woman. Once

I indeed disguised as one when I was active in a cyberspace forum, and caused myself some embarrassing troubles :). 

Mingbo raised many more questions on The Planets than he had on Longitude, and yet I could see that this was the result of his doing more work, not less.  

I demand of myself to solve any question as best as I can, lest you are overburdened.

I recall, while I was painfully searching for appropriate Chinese words to translate some sentences in the chapter on moon, I wished the next chapter would be easier, but later on found with disillusion that it was as difficult.

On the whole, your book involves so many fields of knowledge that I have to look up and learn a lot of new material from time to time before proceeding, but as it is said, no pain and no gain. I am also plentifully rewarded during the procedure. 

An old Chinese translator once defined three stages that a translated work should achieve. From the lowest to the highest they are reliability, fluency, and elegance. Currently, I am still on the first stage or at best on the verge of the second, but I will try my best to approach the third one before turning in my work. 


By the time of the 2007 mid-Autumn Festival, Mingbo was “proofreading and polishing” his first draft of The Planets. But now he became a fact-checker in addition to his role as translator. He attended almost fanatically to technical detail. Whereas before I had only to look back at my own book to answer his questions, I now had to return also to the references I’d consulted in my research. 


You mention that "Yet the Earth, too, is decelerating, by a few hundredths of a second annually" (p.114) but on the next page, it becomes "the almost imperceptible decrease in the Earth's rotation amounts to a mere millisecond every fifty years".


As far as I understand, these two sentences cannot be true at the same time. It seems that the first value is too high.


I don't mean to be criticizing or impolite. Please forgive me if I sound fault-finding.


Mingbo was right. The first value was way too high. The Earth decelerates by only a few millionths (not hundredths) of a second per year. This is the kind of error that science writers call a “howler”—a gross, embarrassing mistake that should never have seen print. Yet I had made the mistake, and not one of the technical experts or copy editors among  my colleagues had caught it. Clearly, no one had ever read my book as carefully as Mingbo was reading it. I told him that in a thank-you note. Then I wrote to my American editor, and informed her of the correction that would have to be made in subsequent editions. By the time Mingbo completed his final review of The Planets, I had sent the American editor three more letters of correction.


How grateful I am to have your replies, telling me the truth, in the early morning. I had been in fear since I sent those two emails, lest my carelessness and ruthlessness offended you. Usually, I don't read a book as carefully. A translator has to go to details though, because he must make out the meaning and put it into a different language.

Sometimes, he may spend hours to find the right words or phrases to express something reading so simple and straightforward in English. When I become serious in translating your books, some people think I am foolishly making troubles for myself, since my major is not in English, literature, science history, or astronomy, and it is such a badly paid task. But I cannot put up with bad translations that ruin good books. 


         He had translated two technical books in the past, about communications systems and information theory. Apparently, his efforts went unappreciated on those occasions, as he told me that many of the corrections he offered were not incorporated in the final texts. Then, because of the errors left in, those books went quickly out of print. 

         I wasn’t sure which pleased me more—having Mingbo’s valuable assistance, or having awakened in him an interest in planetary science.


When I translate your books, it occurs to me that if I had read them when I was a teenager, I would have chosen a different major. Undoubtedly, I will feel greatly complimented if the book is to turn an unsuspecting young reader into an astronomer forever.


         He had already absorbed one of astronomy’s most powerful impressions.


The more I ponder over the space, the more I think we human

beings should cherish Earth and live in peace with each other.


         I sent Mingbo a press release regarding the launch of the first Chinese mission to the Moon. On October 24, 2007, Chang’e-1 left the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan aboard a Long March rocket, to conduct a year-long analysis of the Moon’s geology and chemistry from close lunar orbit. The report stated that the name “Chang’e” referred to the Chinese goddess of the Moon. Mingbo wrote back to elaborate on her place in ancient Chinese mythology.


Her husband, Hou Yi, is said to be a super-hero, who shot down

nine of ten Suns in the sky so that the earth could cool down to support lives. The Suns were depicted as the sons of the heaven emperor (some kinds of thunderbirds). While they were supposed to be on duty by turns, they went out together one day and scorched the Earth.


After Hou Yi killed nine thunderbirds, the heaven emperor became

angry at him and refused his return to the heaven. That was bad for Hou Yi and his wife, because now they would be mortal like ordinary people. So Hou Yi, after experiencing lots of tribulation, obtained some elixir from the heaven queen. The elixir had enough dosage to allow two persons to survive a very long time, or for one person to become immortal. Chang'e didn't like the life on the Earth, so she secretly took the whole elixir by herself. She flew toward the heaven but felt shameful to have left Hou Yi behind, so she went to the Moon palace instead, where she has lived lonely ever since.


         The millennia-long heritage of these and other stories he sent me were, for Mingbo, “one of the reasons I cherish this country so much.” He encouraged me to visit, perhaps in connection with the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, but I didn’t think such a thing would be possible. 

         Then, thanks to the organizers of the Shanghai Literary Festival and the Man Hong Kong Literary Festival, I did travel to China—and finally met Mingbo.


Remembering Marjory Stoneman Douglas

When I first heard about the shooting, I felt only horror, the same as everyone else. But my second thought was regret that the bloodshed of Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida had tied the name Marjory Stoneman Douglas to the violent deaths of teenagers and teachers. She had long been better known as a gifted writer and environmentalist who campaigned most of her 108 years—from the 1920s through the 1990s—for the preservation of the Everglades.

One of the first things I asked when I met her in 1991 was how she had managed to hold fast to her goals when it seemed she might never prevail. She answered with a question of her own: “Why should I give up?”

At that time she was the only surviving member of the original 1927 committee to put the Everglades under National Park Service protection. She remained a champion of all the flora and fauna there, though she had never spent much time on site. “It’s too buggy,” she said, “too wet, too generally inhospitable—the sawgrass would cut you to pieces—for camping or hiking or the other outdoor activities which naturalists in other places can routinely enjoy.” Still, on her infrequent visits over the years she had witnessed the nuptial flight of the white ibis, fed marshmallows to alligators, and walked close enough to a rare Florida panther to see the shadows of its whiskers.

“I know it’s out there and I know its importance,” she said of the park and its environs. “I suppose you could say the Everglades and I have the kind of friendship that doesn’t depend on constant physical contact.”

Instead of communing with the Glades, Mrs. Douglas spoke for them in tireless efforts at public education, from her position as founder (in 1969) and first president of the group she named “Friends of the Everglades.” Time and again she rescued the Glades from plume hunters who ransacked the rookeries for the millinery trade, from developers who wanted to erect bridges, suburbs, and even a jetport on the marshes.

While some environmentalists defended this or that endangered species of waterbird, Mrs. Douglas espoused a radical view: “It’s the whole thing that’s got to be preserved,” she said. She divined the true character of these wetlands as a river, not a swamp, and gave the place its enduring epithet in the title of her 1947 book, The Everglades: River of Grass.

“There are no other Everglades in the world,” she wrote. “They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the Earth, remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them: their vast glittering openness, wider than the enormous visible round of the horizon, the racing free saltness and sweetness of their massive winds, under the dazzling blue heights of space....The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of sawgrass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida. It is a river of grass.”

For all the poetic loquacity of her writing, she spoke in the clipped phrases of the “damn Yankee” she professed to be, even after seventy-five years in Florida. Born in Minneapolis in 1890, she was raised in New England and educated at Wellesley College. Her terseness, neither impolite nor impatient, struck me as a form of personal conservation, as though she were saving her own energy for the work at hand. At 101, she was still writing her biography of W. H. Hudson, meeting with federal officials, and consenting to every public appearance, every requested photo session or television taping, out of a sense that her small, frail body remained a powerful instrument for swaying public opinion to her cause.

Despite her advanced age and the respect she commanded, people tended to call her by her first name, and she did not object. New acquaintances, even strangers recognizing her in the restaurant where I took her to dinner, were immediately on a first-name basis with her. Lawton Chiles, then governor of Florida, had recently decreed her birthday, April 7, to be the start of a two-week statewide celebration of environmental awareness called “Plant a Tree for Marjory.”

She had shown an early sympathy for nature, as she related in her autobiography, Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Voice of the River:

“Upstairs in the sitting room, father read to me, mostly from ‘Hiawatha.’ When he came to Hiawatha building the canoe and saying to the birch tree, ‘Give me of your bark, oh, birch tree,’ and the birch tree sighing and bending over to give up its bark, he was astonished by the fact that I burst into loud sobs. I couldn’t make him understand I was sorry for the birch tree, because why should the birch tree have to give up his bark just because Hiawatha wanted to build a canoe? I couldn’t stand it. I cried and I guess father skipped the canoe part after that.”

But it wasn’t love of the wilderness that brought her to South Florida in 1915. She came to get a divorce from the enigmatic Kenneth Douglas, a writer thirty years her senior whom she’d married in 1913, and also to be reunited with her father, Judge Frank B. Stoneman, editor of the Miami Herald, whom she hadn’t seen for twenty years.

Judge Stoneman was already stumping for the preservation of the Everglades before his daughter arrived. Many Floridians then viewed the Everglades as a snake-infested swamp that would benefit from nothing so much as a thorough draining. He spoke out against draining in his editorials. One imagines, from Marjory’s description of him, that Frank Stoneman valued the Everglades for their mere existence and their sheer beauty. For their right to be. And in this she wholeheartedly agreed with him.

As it happened, a job soon opened for Marjory at the Herald. She had always wanted to be a writer, had written in high school and majored in English composition in college, but it took the society editor’s sudden departure to land Marjory in her dream career.

In 1916, during the first World War, she was assigned a story on the first female enlistee from Florida in the Naval Reserve.

“Look,” she telephoned her father to say “I got the story on the first woman to enlist. It turned out to be me.”

“I admire your patriotism,” he replied, “but it leaves us a little short-handed.”

Finding herself “overqualified for yeoman work in the Navy,” she put in for an early honorable discharge and then served overseas in France with the American Red Cross.

Back in Florida in 1920, and again writing for the Herald, she was given her own column, “The Galley.” An editorial she wrote in verse, expressing her outrage about a young man who was arrested for vagrancy and then beaten to death in a labor camp, convinced the state legislature to abolish beatings in the camps. Another cause she wrote about in her column was the need to make the Everglades a national park.

When the work and the pressure of newspaper reporting proved overwhelming, she turned to short story writing for magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post. She set some of her stories in and around the Everglades, and never lost interest in them over the fifteen years she worked as a full-time freelance writer. “Pineland,” published in the Post on August 15, 1925, begins:

“All around them the white brilliance of the Florida moon poured down upon the uneven road from the burial place, caught on the bright spear points of palmettos and struck into nakedness the shabby houses among stumps of pine trees of this outskirt of Miami. The light and the hot wind seemed whiter and hotter for the figure of Sarah McDevitt in her mourning.”

Marjory was six months into a novel when the opportunity to write the book about the Everglades arose through her friendship with Hervey Allen, an editor at Rinehart. He invited her to contribute to a series of books about the rivers of America, and suggested the Miami River. She protested that it was “only about an inch long.” The Everglades, on the other hand, were somehow connected to the Miami River, and would no doubt make a richer story.

“Do you think I could get away with calling it a river of grass?” Marjory asked the state hydrologist, the first expert she consulted in her research. He said she could.

“The water moves,” she wrote. “The sawgrass, pale green to deep-brown ripeness, stands rigid. It is moved only in sluggish rollings by the vast push of the winds across it. Over its endless acres here and there the shadows of the dazzling clouds quicken and slide, purple-brown, plum-brown, mauve-brown, rust-brown, bronze. The bristling, blossoming tops do not bend easily like standing grain. They do not even in their growth curve all one way but stand in edged clumps, curving against each other, all the massed curving blades making millions of fine arching lines that at a little distance merge to a huge expanse of brown wires, or bristles or, farther beyond, to deep-piled plush. At the horizon they become velvet. The line they make is an edge of velvet against the infinite blue, the blue-and-white, the clear fine primrose yellow, the burning brass and crimson, the molten silver, the deepening hyacinth sky.”

The book is not just a celebration of nature but a detailed chronicle, from the lethal skirmishes between Native Americans and European settlers in the Glades to the later struggles of the wetlands wildlife against the onslaught of dams, drainage and drought.

That book, which she wrote out in longhand before hiring a typist, brought her great acclaim and united her name with the Everglades forever. Two decades after its publication she and another acquaintance, Joe Browder of the National Audubon Society, hatched the idea for an organization that would take a stand for the Everglades. Within a year the Friends of the Everglades had five hundred members, and the ranks eventually swelled to thousands. 

In 1993, two years after I met her, Marjory was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, with a citation recognizing her as “An extraordinary woman who has devoted her long life to protecting the fragile ecosystem of the Everglades, and to the cause of equal rights for all Americans.”

If she were alive today, she would surely be cheering on the Parkland students for the strength of their determination. At 10 a.m. on April 20, they will again lend her name to their cause as they honor the victims of the 1999 Columbine shooting by walking out the doors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They are the country’s newest river, surging forward, rising.




It’s a lot like naming the baby. The search for the perfect title torments some authors all through the writing of their books. And although readers can’t (or shouldn’t) judge a book by its cover, its title is a different story.  

Once in a while the ideal title will spring to a writer’s mind right along with the initial idea. This happened to Joseph Heller in the case of Catch-22. Heller visited my high school in the early 1960s when Catch-22 was an international bestseller, and told us the memorable story of its naming and re-naming: He had always called the book “Catch-18” while writing it, he said, and every instance of the phrase “Catch-22” had appeared as “Catch-18” in his manuscript. But shortly before the book’s release, his publisher summoned him to a meeting where “people were sitting around the room with their chins on the floor,” stunned by news of a new book by Leon Uris, the celebrated author of Exodus, called Mila 18.  Two contemporary World War II novels could not coexist with the number 18 in both titles. Someone (maybe Heller himself) suggested 22 instead, and soon everyone in the group agreed that 22’s rat-a-tat tap and visual repetition made important improvements over the discarded 18.

In my own titling experience, I tried hard to avoid using “longitude” in the title of Longitude, as I thought the word might strike dread in the heart. I toyed with “Imaginary Lines” and other euphemisms before conceding that no other title would suit. Although Longitude named its topic as plainly as possible, still the title left room for disbelief. Even now, people occasionally ask me, “What’s it about, really?”

Galileo’s Daughter proved easier to name. The title suggested itself the moment I learned Galileo had fathered an illegitimate child who entered a convent at age thirteen and maintained a loving relationship with him via letters. The book was “Galileo’s Daughter” from the proposal through the first draft and the greatly revised second draft. As the text went to copy-editing and design, however, concern arose that the title smacked of “chick book.” Fortunately for me, no one in the publishing house or literary agency could come up with an acceptable alternative, and the original stuck.  

During the years I worked on my book about the planets of the solar system, I needed some way to refer to the work-in-progress, and landed by default on “The Planets” as a working title. As the project developed into a mash-up of popular culture and current astronomy, I came up with “How the Planets Came to Earth.” The publisher strongly preferred “The Planets.” Rather than try to defend my title, I struck a bargain: I said I would go along with the predictable, pedestrian “The Planets” in exchange for a radical subtitle, namely no subtitle. Very few works of nonfiction were appearing sans subtitle, and I thought the absence of one – the deliberate refusal to claim that any aspect of my book might “change the world” – seemed to offer it true distinction. How wrong I was. If ever a book title needed to lean on a subtitle, surely The Planets was it, especially considering the scores of other books by the same title, which range from textbooks to an anthology of poems.  

I determined to do better by the next book, concerning Copernicus. His name sufficed as an interim title during the research phase (a Nick-name, if you will), until his own writings suggested something apt. Copernicus had set out to correct certain abuses in the practice of astronomy, and wound up reorganizing the solar system as a side effect of that effort. His mathematical work in restricting the planets to perfectly circular motion defined his vision of “a more perfect heaven.” I liked the sound of that. Given that Copernicus served as a Catholic Church administrator and dedicated his magnum opus to Pope Paul III, I thought the use of the word heaven particularly appropriate. Editors countered, “You can’t say ‘heaven’ in the title of a book about astronomy.” I didn’t need to argue the point. The publication of a new work by Harvard cosmologist Lisa Randall, called Knocking on Heaven’s Door, made the way safe for A More Perfect Heaven.  

The play I wrote about Copernicus’s campaign for the heliocentric worldview took its title from the Bible, And the Sun Stood Still. Biblical passages are fair game in book titles, even for books with scant religious content. (Think of Thy Neighbor’s Wife by Gay Talese.) This particular text from the Book of Joshua in fact posed a threat to Copernicus during his lifetime, and made him delay publication of his book till his old age. I not only appropriated it for the title, but also inserted it in the dialogue, so that three of the play’s five characters each allude at least once to Joshua’s command.

Until now, I have never assumed the word universe in a book title. Other authors have spoken freely of the universe in terms of “unveiling” it, “measuring” it, putting it “in a nutshell” or “in your hand.” Their titles describe the universe variously as “elegant,” “crowded,” “extravagant,” “accidental,” “4-percent,” and more. Mine is made of glass.

The phrase “glass universe” may evoke the ancient notion of crystalline celestial spheres, but I use it to describe Harvard’s incomparable collection of half a million glass photographic plates, taken with cameras attached to telescopes, in a century-long effort to catalogue the entire content of the cosmos. The ambitious photography project, begun in the 1880s, is culminating today in a digitization process designed to preserve and disseminate the as yet untapped content of all that glass.

The “glass universe” tickles me because it instantly summons the “glass ceiling.” And while outer space may be considered a sort of ceiling above human affairs, the female astronomers who are the heroines of my story were indeed underpaid compared to their male peers. The ladies’ research reports, letters, and diaries describe their long wait for the right to vote, let alone title or advancement in their field. From the 1880s through the onset of World War II (when most astronomers left the Harvard Observatory for jobs supporting the war effort), fifteen to twenty women at a time made important discoveries by analyzing sky images on glass plates.

The photographed comets, stars, nebulae, and galaxies constitute a kind of “glass menagerie,” tended by women who themselves shared certain properties of glass – by turns molten, malleable, brittle, versatile, fragile, invisible.

(This essay originally appeared on

Quoting Marie Curie on her birthday

Today, November 7, is the birthday of the one woman scientist whose name is familiar to nearly everyone. Marie Skladowska Curie (1867-1934) is well worth celebrating for her achievements in both physics and chemistry, for which she was twice awarded the Nobel Prize, and also for her personal bravery. She built and drove mobile X-ray units to numerous front-line battlefields during World War I to aid wounded French soldiers.

Garrison Keillor saluted Mme. Curie today on The Writer's Almanac. "Be less curious about people," he quoted her, "and more curious about ideas."

A-Word-A-Day also cited some of Mme. Curie's philosophy today, without comment on her use of the word disinterested to mean free from selfish motives, not lack of curiosity: "Humanity also needs dreamers, for whom the disinterested development of an enterprise is so captivating that it becomes impossible for them to devote their care to their own material profit. Without doubt, these dreamers do not deserve wealth, because they do not desire it. Even so, a well-organized society should assure to such workers the efficient means of accomplishing their task, in a life freed from material care and freely consecrated to research."

Among my favorite passages from Mme. Curie's writings is the one that astronomer Annie Jump Cannon recorded in a notebook in 1922, while on an observing run in Arequipa, Peru. The quotation was neither an aphorism nor a political statement, but a memory of private moments in pure research: "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night. We then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles or capsules containing our products. It was really a lovely sight and always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights." Perhaps Miss Cannon saw her stars the same way.


The color purple

Part One of my new book, The Glass Universe, concerns “The Colors of Starlight.” It opens with a quote about stellar colors from the first lady of American astronomy, Maria Mitchell: 

"I swept around for comets about an hour, and then I amused myself with noticing the varieties of color. I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety. . . . What a pity that some of our manufacturers shouldn’t be able to steal the secret of dyestuffs from the stars."

The glass-plate photographs that the Harvard women examined in their studies were particularly sensitive to light from the blue-violet end of the visual spectrum – a fact that has sensitized me to violet light wherever it appears. In a recent re-reading of E. M. Forester’s classic, A Room With a View, I found the blue and violet hues celebrated beautifully: 

"From her feet the ground sloped sharply into the view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems, collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth."

On Paradise Pond

The back-to-school season finds me once again at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. My appointment as the Joan Leiman Jacobson Visiting Nonfiction Writer was supposed to end after the 2015 spring term, but, most fortunately for me, I've been asked back for a third academic year. In addition to the interaction with truly motivated students, I enjoy my friendships with a few faculty members and the physical beauty of the campus, including Paradise Pond. The pond, which is really a dammed section of the Mill River, got its name from Jenny Lind, who sang at Northampton's Old First Church in 1851 (before the college existed) and declared the village "the paradise of America." A path that runs from campus around the pond and along a good stretch of the river provides the ideal hour-long daily walk.

The incoming first-year students have been asked to read The Collapse of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, a book I assigned as required reading for my science-writing class last semester. It takes a grim view from the future at the current failure of nations to address the consequences of climate change.

I read a few books myself this summer, including Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. All three will come up in conversation in this year's classes, as they offer, respectively, a fictionalized account of organisms affected by climate change, a scientist's appreciation of a misunderstood mollusk, and the bonds between humans and other animals.

I spent most of May through August writing my own book about the female "computers" of the Harvard College Observatory, The Glass Universe, which I hope to finish by the publisher's November deadline. To keep the project moving forward through the summer, I turned down an invitation to attend a week-long conference on European Women in Mathematics, convened at a palazzo in Cortona, Italy, where I would be right now had I agreed to go.

But I'm happy to be at my work, and to be here, on Paradise Pond.

Word play

Somewhere in the process of writing Galileo's Daughter, I came up with a method that helped me avoid repeating unusual words or phrases. Although a simple "Find" command can turn up all the inadvertent repetitions in an article or a chapter, "Find" falls short in the face of a lengthy book project with several parts. In a composition notebook with alphabet tabs, I entered words that might call attention to themselves, along with the numbers of the chapters in which they appeared. The hard part was remembering to make the entries, but after a while it became habit. I used different pages of the same notebook to achieve the same goal with The Planets. Now I keep my concordance on the computer, where it's handier and easier to alphabetize.

Although I have no need to look back at the concordances of previous books, reviewing them recalls the feeling of immersion in those subjects. In Galileo's world, words like "abstruse," "bellowed," and "capacious" found their places. The Solar System accommodated "dazzle," "extremophile," and "fumarole."

The new book belongs to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I'm only at the halfway point, but have already found my first opportunities to use "accouterments," "aflutter," and "unbosom." The list of "a" words, read aloud, sounds a little like a Latin conjugation: alas, alight, allot, allow, amass, apace, avow . . . .

Paying respects

Last Saturday I visited the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many of the astronomers who worked at the Harvard College Observatory are buried there, and I wanted to pay my respects. It was a perfect spring day. Mount Auburn is as much an arboretum as a burial ground, and the flowering trees made light of the long, white winter suffered in these parts. Thanks to astronomer Owen Gingerich and astronomy librarian Maria McEachern, I had a map of the territory, with stars marking the sites of the relevant graves. I found almost the entire cast of characters of my current book project, from the observatory's founding director, William Cranch Bond, to the celebrated telescope makers of the Alvan Clark family, and Williamina Paton Fleming, the first lady among my several heroines.

I stopped a long time at the side-by-side tombstones of Edward Pickering and his wife, nee Lizzie Wadsworth Sparks. Pickering ran the observatory for more than forty years, from 1877 until his death in 1919. He gave employment with encouragement to a score of women who fulfilled careers as computers and astronomers. Aside from his name and the dates defining his life, Pickering's epitaph consisted of a single word, Thanatopsis. I recognized it as the title of William Cullen Bryant's poem about facing death -- the same poem my mother had asked me to read aloud at her funeral.

I placed a small stone on top of the marker, and moved on.

Return of H-4

I was pleased to be invited to speak recently at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington for the opening of "Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude." Having traveled to England last summer to see the exhibition's first iteration, I wanted to help welcome the items to the States. The numerous scientific instruments and portraits, including one of 18th-century clockmaker John "Longitude" Harrison, look splendid in the Folger's Great Hall, their new temporary home. When I arrived at the library on March 19, about an hour ahead of the two hundred invited guests, a pleasant surprise made me discard my prepared remarks. I had intended to say that the sea clocks at the heart of the show were all replicas, standing in for the venerated originals that reside at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich as star tourist attractions. I meant to praise the copies for being fully functional and exact in every detail. I wanted to make the point that although the originals were not allowed out of the UK, the replicas could tour as their inventor's ambassadors, to be seen and appreciated all over the world. But there at the Folger, staring back at me from one of the display cases, was Harrison's celebrated fourth timekeeper -- the original H-4 -- the very "Watch" that had solved the longitude problem.

H-4 was made for travel. It crisscrossed the Atlantic twice in the 176os to prove its merit on ocean trials, but it had not gone anywhere since 1964, when the Admiralty lent it to the U. S. Naval Observatory. How happy I was to see it again.

I like to think Harrison would be pleased with the replicas of his sea clocks. After all, he built them as prototypes, and hoped the best design would multiply to occupy every vessel in the Royal Navy. I doubt he foresaw H-4's future as a museum piece. It has become one only because it answered the need so well.

Second stage

I am still waiting, still hoping, still trying for a second staging of my Copernicus play, “And the Sun Stood Still,” to follow its successful production in Boulder last spring. Finding another venue is proving even more difficult than I had imagined, but meanwhile the play continues to be heard. L. A. Theatre Works, a non-profit media arts organization with a forty-year history, will soon produce an audio recording of “And the Sun Stood Still” in its West Hollywood studio, under the direction of Rosalind Ayres of BBC Radio. When completed, the recording will become part of  the L. A. Theatre Works repertoire, from which plays are regularly downloaded on iTunes, streamed on-line, checked out of 11,000 libraries, broadcast on various radio networks in the U.S. and abroad, and used by teachers in 3,000 American high schools.

On occasion, I have taken the part of Rheticus (Copernicus’s provocative young visitor) in informal enactments of two scenes from the play’s first act, with my friend and mentor Owen Gingerich of Harvard as Copernicus. Gingerich is an acknowledged world authority on Copernicus, which makes his rendition of the role an oversized in-joke for our audiences.

We performed first on a whim at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, where we were both attending an astronomy meeting in September 2012.  It went well enough to be reprised at a Harvard Observatory “Open Night” last March. Gingerich promised to wear the blue velvet scholar’s robes that had been custom-made for him in connection with a ceremony in his honor held at a university in Poland. In Cambridge, after word got out about the “actor” and the costume, we filled the auditorium and the overflow space and still had to turn away a large number of folks.

We put on our act again this past November as part of an interdisciplinary weekend conference at Smith College on the theme of space. And we’re about to take the stage again this coming weekend – a command performance at the home of a rare book collector in Virginia.

All this fun is so much more than I envisioned when the idea for the play first occurred to me, forty-plus years ago. But I'd still like to see the play unfold on stage again, from a seat in a playhouse somewhere.

Daily ritual

Part of my daily ritual entails reading an entry in Mason Currey's delightful book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. This morning, for example, I learned that the late Philip Larkin held a job as a librarian for most of his adult life, and wrote poetry in the evening, "after dinner and the dishes." Another of my daily rituals is listening to Garrison Keillor intone history notes and a poem in his pleasing baritone on "The Writer's Almanac." Today's poem happened to be by Philip Larkin. I thought, What are the odds of that? Currey's book describes the work habits of 161 individuals, only some of whom are poets, and Keillor draws on centuries' worth of verse. It was the kind of coincidence that opens a rational person such as myself to mystic possibilities.

Larkin's poem, called "Travellers," did the same. It evoked strangers on a train, and hinted at their potential destiny with each other, while they, "islanded in unawareness," hurtled to their destinations.



Since 1997, I have been providing a book a month for "higher studies" at the Poor Clare Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Roswell, New Mexico. The ongoing book donations honor the memory of Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C., who showed me the "merry" heart of a cloistered nun, and answered my many questions about convent life while I was writing Galileo's Daughter. At first I ordered the titles she named, by contacting a variety of religious publishers such as Ignatius Press and Pauline Books. Later, after I sent Mother Mary Francis my credit card information so she could place the monthly orders directly, she assured me by return letter that she had "resisted the temptation to buy a villa in France." In recent years the new abbess, Mother Mary Angela, has further streamlined the process by ordering three books at a time on a quarterly basis.

In November, a charge appeared on my credit card bill for more than $100 worth of merchandise from The Teaching Company. I thought it must be an error or incidence of fraudulent use, so I called the vendor to question the transaction. A clerk informed me the materials had been sent to an address in Roswell. It was the first time in my experience that "my" nuns had shopped with a secular supplier. In another few days I received a thank-you note from Mother Mary Angela with the names of the latest acquisitions. Availing herself of a sale on The Great Courses, she had purchased "Experiencing Hubble," "Our Night Sky," and "Building Great Sentences." Those choices, which reflected my interests more than theirs, bound me ever closer to the group. While it's true I was raised Jewish in the Bronx, my ongoing association with the sisters has proved a continuing source of joy.

"I wish you could have seen us last night," Mother Mary Angela said in her Christmas greeting, "as we went outside during recreation to view the stars with the planisphere that came with the course on the night sky. We were able to see the Pleiades, the Hyades, and the Andromeda galaxy with binoculars and pointed out to each other Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Taurus, Auriga, and the great Square of Pegasus. One month ago, we would have stared at the sky with great wonder but little understanding of what we were seeing."


As the daughter and sister of puzzlers, I was raised on The New York Times crosswords and acrostics -- also diagramless, cryptic, puns & anagrams, and other varieties of word play. Imagine my delight on Sunday, November 2, when the acrostic (my favorite challenge) featured a passage from Galileo's Daughter. In fact, I found out the preceding Friday, by e-mail from a well meaning colleague who urged me, "You definitely must do this Sunday's NYT acrostic puzzle."  As the sender was someone I knew only passing well, and to whom I had never disclosed my puzzle mania, the message spilled the surprise. It's finally happened, I realized. One of my books (I did not yet know which) had been singled out by acrostic authors Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, and passed muster with puzzle editor Will Shortz.

I was stupid with excitement. At the same time, I wished I hadn't been forewarned. I would have experienced a much bigger, much better thrill by struggling part-way through the puzzle, then suddenly realizing I could fill in the first letter of every clue. But I felt no anger toward my unwitting tipster. Besides, I would not have attempted the acrostic before Monday night, by which time one of my students had already congratulated me on its content.

The following week, the answers to the previous week's puzzles appeared, and sent another small electric charge through the members of my family.



Prizes: surprise and reprise

I was most pleasantly surprised a few months ago to learn that the Eduard Rhein Foundation of Germany wanted to give me its 2014 Cultural Award. Accepting the honor meant flying to Munich to attend the October 18 prize ceremony in the Hall of Fame at the Deutsches Museum, a grand old wonder cabinet of science and technology exhibits. The eponymous Eduard Rhein (1900 - 1993) patented important inventions in the 1940s pertaining to radio, television, and LP vinyl records. He was also a prolific popular writer and children's author. The Foundation's prizes reflect his various interests, and include youth awards to promising students in the sciences. 

This year the Foundation conferred its Technology Award on the affable Kees Schouhamer Immink of the Netherlands, whose contributions to digital recording underlie the CD, DVD and Blu-ray disc. In the brief time I had to chat with him, I thought we might commiserate about the declining memory capacity of the human brain, but Immink was having none of that. He told me he's currently learning Mandarin, successfully retaining myriad new sounds and symbols. 

A few days after returning from Munich, at another prize ceremony in the Boston Museum of Science, I watched Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web (and winner of the 1998 Eduard Rhein Technology Award), receive a 2014 Bradford Washburn Award. What a month for glitter. And, because 2014 marks the fiftieth year of the Washburn prize, named for the Museum's beloved founding director, two additional winners were also fêted at the October 23 event: three-term New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, now the U. N. Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, and Richard Saul Wurman, creator of the TED conference.

As one of several past Washburn laureates invited back to join the happy fuss over the new ones, I sat in the audience with Paula Apsell (1994), senior executive director of NOVA. When Bloomberg remarked that he still prefers a slide rule to a calculator, she Tweeted the comment. After the ceremony, she urged the ex-mayor to run for president. He kissed her on the cheek.

Darkness at Moon

Yesterday, as I finished reading the current issue of New Scientist, I turned over the last page and was struck by a watch advertisement on the back cover. The wristwatch appeared to be in lunar orbit, and had the kind of multi-dial face meant to appeal to a would-be astronaut. Indeed, according to the ad copy, earlier iterations of this very model, an Omega Speedmaster chronometer, were worn by members of the Apollo missions. In and under the headline, "THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON," the ad's text referred twice to an outpost that only right-stuff crews have seen "with their own eyes."

I made that same labeling mistake once myself, and was embarrassed by it, so I remain sensitized to the important difference between the far side of the Moon, forever hidden from the earthbound among us, and the dark side, which changes all the time as the Moon circles the Earth. At full Moon, the dark side and the far side are one and the same. But the same cannot be said for the rest of any month. Most times, moonstruck earthlings can easily see our satellite's dark side without benefit of a rocket ship or even a telescope.

Grade-school teachers report that the majority of students need to engage in hands-on activities involving globes and flashlights before they can master the Moon's phases. For whatever help it may provide, a schematic diagram of the lunar phases is pictured on every page of this web site. The old-fashioned image comes from an outdated textbook, but it contains correct information, gleaned from observers' longstanding fascination with the waxing and waning of the Moon.



On July 16, the en-route-to-Pluto team celebrated an important milestone: Their New Horizons spacecraft had arrived at a point in space just one year shy of Pluto flyby. Mission scientists met for two days of detailed encounter planning at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, and threw a party at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in nearby D. C. In exchange for agreeing to speak at the "One Year and Counting" event, I got to sit in on some of the science meetings and tour certain non-restricted areas of the Lab -- most notably the Mission Operations Center that controls New Horizons. The spacecraft had recently been awakened from hibernation to perform a slight course correction. Now, having smoothly executed the maneuver, it would go back to sleep for a few months while coasting toward its destiny.

The Mission Operations Center looks like Apollo Mission Control, only much smaller and less densely populated with anxious faces. Even though New Horizons is performing perfectly, and every phase of the mission has gone according to plan thus far, the spacecraft's handlers live with a constant concern for its welfare. They also admit, good-naturedly, to their own superstitious behavior. On Mondays, for example, when New Horizons signals home with a status update report, some staffers dress in green, the color that signifies optimal conditions. No one requires them to wear green, of course, but they are expressly forbidden to wear red, the color of danger. All shades of red, pink, and even fuchsia, are proscribed.

Toys also help control anxiety in mission control. New Horizons has a small Earthbound mascot affectionately known as the hibernation bear. When the spacecraft is hibernating, so does the bear, bedded down in the tiny nightshirt, cap, and blanket that have been lovingly hand-sewn for him. When New Horizons wakes up for a trajectory correction or instrument test, the bear is propped into a sitting position and dons his party hat.

In my remarks for the public program at the Air & Space Museum, I recalled my time on the Planet Definition Committee and considered the continuing controversy over Pluto's status among the bodies of the Solar System. Whether we call it a planet or a dwarf planet, Pluto remains an unexplored world.

We will start to come face to face with Pluto and its five known moons next January, when New Horizons rouses to begin its reconnaissance. By the time of closest approach in July, we'll see what kind of world Pluto is.


Endnote on "Booknotes"

Between 1989 and 2004, Brian Lamb hosted the weekly C-SPAN television show "Booknotes," in which he spent an hour interviewing an author about one book. Recently Mr. Lamb donated his collection of the 801 annotated "Booknotes" books to the library at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. I'm happy to say The Illustrated Longitude counts among them. A few weeks ago the university's oral historians asked me to recall my experience on the program. I remember hoping to get a call from Mr. Lamb after Longitude was published in 1995, but he didn't reach out to me until The Illustrated Longitude appeared three years later. Our conversation about it aired on "Booknotes" on January 17, 1999. 

Friends addicted to "Booknotes" had warned me that Mr. Lamb often pursued odd points of fact, such as the type of pen a writer employed. That was fine with me. What I found truly unusual about him was his habit of careful reading and thorough preparation. I had survived radio interviews with hosts who had no idea who I was or what I had written, and who opened with a vague, "So, tell me about your book."

The most surprising question Mr. Lamb posed concerned the year of my father's death. I was so taken aback that for a moment I couldn't remember the date. I fared much better with questions about the chronometer story. And when Mr. Lamb inquired about Longitude's unexpected success, I mentioned I had been at a dance competition in Florida the day The New York Times ran its rave review, but that my editor, George Gibson, had gone out late at night in Manhattan to buy the next morning's newspaper, then telephoned me in Florida to read the review over the phone--twice.

Mr. Lamb steered the discussion back to my mention of "dance competition" and ballroom dancing in general. He seemed so interested that I couldn't resist asking him a question: "Are you a dancer, Brian?" He colored a bit and we changed the subject, but afterward, in the green room, he demonstrated an impressive turning box step. I salute him for that, as well as for creating a time capsule of the country's reading tastes at the turn of the current century.


Victim of anniversaries

My friend and mentor Owen Gingerich of Harvard once described himself as a victim of anniversaries. The 400th of Kepler's birth was the first one to affect him, in 1971, followed soon by Copernicus's 500th, in 1973. These observances changed Gingerich from an astrophysicist computing model stellar atmospheres to a full-time historian of science. This year I find myself happily "victimized" by three big-round-number commemorations. The 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act has occasioned a new hardcover edition of Longitude in the UK, and will take me to Greenwich in July for the opening of the National Maritime Museum's exhibition called "Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude." Meanwhile the 450th birthdays of Galileo (February 15) and Shakespeare (April 23) provide good excuses for musing on the connections between the two. Not only did Galileo love poetry (reading it, critiquing it, committing most of Orlando Furioso to memory, composing his own terza rima), but Shakespeare included numerous references to actual astronomical events such as novas and eclipses in his plays.

Surely they never met, as neither man ever left his home country. Shakespeare, whose life journey took him only the hundred miles between Stratford and London, nevertheless set two plays in Verona, two in Venice, two in Ancient Rome, two in Sicily, one in Padua, and one on an island full of castaways from Naples and Milan. Galileo, born in Pisa, traveled to the Moon and stars via his telescope. Only hours after his book describing these discoveries came off the press in Venice in 1610, the English ambassador there dispatched a copy to the court of King James I.  

Both Shakespeare and Galileo addressed themselves to a wide public, because they shared a higher than average opinion of the average intellect. "Sure he that made us with such large discourse," cries Hamlet, "Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and godlike reason / To fust in us unused."

Similarly, Galileo published most of his books in Italian instead of Latin, so as to inform compatriots who could not afford a university education: "Now I want them to see that just as Nature has given to them, as well as to philosophers, eyes with which to see her works, so she has also given them brains capable of penetrating and understanding them."

Let us celebrate those sentiments throughout 2014 and beyond.