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Science, Big and Small
Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter
M. Lee Goff's A Fly for the Prosecution

by Caroline Kettlewell

Galileo's Daughter is a surprisingly touching love story that questions the standard interpretation of Galileo's relationship with the Catholic Church, while A Fly for the Prosecution is a love story of a different sort all together.

The universe, you may have noticed, is a big place. And with every update from the frontiers of physics and cosmology, it seems to get a little bigger and more bewildering--and we here on our little Earth ever more insignificant.

It wasn't always thus, of course, at least not in the Christianity-dominated Western world where we managed to spend most of our cultural history smugly convinced, like toddlers, of our position as the centerpiece of God's table. Over the centuries, however, scientific discoveries have had a nasty way of unseating us inch by inch from this cozy spot. To this news we have reacted, often as not, with a notable lack of enthusiasm. Bury the message and shoot the messenger.

In Galileo's Daughter, Dava Sobel revisits one of the more famous of the confrontations between the pioneers of science and the bureaucracies of faith--the trial of Galileo Galilei at the hands of the Roman Catholic Inquisition. But Sobel gives the story a compelling new dimension by expanding it to include Galileo's relationship with his own deeply-held faith, and with his illegitimate daughter Virginia, who from the age of thirteen lived out her life in the Franciscan Convent of San Matteo, where she took her vows as Suor Maria Celeste.

Maria Celeste was devoted to her father, and her history exists for us almost entirely in the form of the loving and learned letters she wrote to him over the years. It is with these that Sobel develops our sense of a woman whose physical world was constricted, impoverished and often marked by hunger, cold and exhausting labors--but whose emotional and intellectual breadth were enormous. Her letters are elegant compositions, by turns teasing, humorous, importuning, chastising, advising, pragmatic and spiritual.

Galileo's Daughter
Dava Sobel
Penguin Books
420 pp.
$14 order now logo

A Fly for the Prosecution
M. Lee Goff
Harvard University
224 pp.
$22.95 order now logo

In one letter, she writes of spiritual consolations:


...I am yearning to enter the other life, as every day I see more plainly the vanity and misery of this one: in death I would stop offending blessed God, and I would hope to be able to pray ever more effectively, Sire, for you. I do not know but that this desire of mine may be too selfish.


and in the same letter turns to everyday matters:


...I have now been assigned to teach Gregorian chant to four young girls, and by Madonna's orders I am responsible for the day-to-day conducting liking, if only I did not also have to work; yet from all this I do derive one very good thing, which is that I never ever sit idle for even one quarter of an hour. If you would teach me the secret you yourself employ, Sire, for getting by on so little sleep, I would be most grateful....


Some critics have complained that, because we know so little of Maria Celeste's life aside from what we can read from these letters, the book is mis-titled. It is really only Galileo's story, with a twist.

But in fact Maria Celeste's words uniquely reilluminate a story that has been familiarly cast as a confrontation between clear-eyed, progressive science and the hidebound reactionaries of faith. For Galileo, though truly one of the great figures in modern scientific history (Einstein called him "the father of modern physics--indeed of modern science altogether"), was himself a man of deep and abiding faith. When all the evidence before his eyes pointed to the inescapable conclusion that the sun did not revolve around the Earth, but rather the opposite, he was forced into the terrible position, in Sobel's words, of being "a Catholic who had come to believe something Catholics were forbidden to believe."

Galileo was able to grasp that science could not possibly contradict God, that a God worthy of the name would embody all science and all truth. The Catholic hierarchy didn't see it that way, and found Galileo


vehemently suspected of heresy, namely of having held and believed the doctrine which is false and contrary to the Sacred and Divine Scriptures, that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move...and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world....


and placed his book on the Index of Prohibited Books, where it remained for four centuries to come.

Galileo was crushed by the verdict, not only because it forbade the printing or distribution of his book (although contraband copies quickly found their way out of the country and continued to be produced in countries not under the Catholic sway), but more deeply and importantly because it called into question his faith.

Maria Celeste's letters of love and support during her father's trials make clear that she, to the contrary, never once questioned his faith or believed for a moment that his discoveries could reflect anything but the work of God.

History is a mosaic made ever more vivid by the addition of endless subtleties of detail. What is engrossing about Sobel's book is that it illustrates a time when faith was life, when living and serving God seemed indistinguishable, when the Catholic Church held vast power to direct individual fates. At the same time, in the person of Maria Celeste we see the individual, human face of that same church, and all the humility and selfless spiritual devotion so notably absent in the scourges of the Inquisition. But in stepping away from the familiar track of the Galileo narrative--man of science versus power-mad Church--to bring to life the lifelong devotion between daughter and father, Sobel's book becomes finally, unexpectedly, and most pleasurably, a love story.

And speaking of love stories, what else but a true passion could lead a man to spend his life picking maggots off corpses? In a nutshell, that's the career trajectory of M. Lee Goff, whose book A Fly for the Prosecution chronicles his work as a forensic entomologist--solving crimes with bugs.

Here's a tidbit for your next cocktail party ice-breaker:


The Fresh Stage begins at the moment of death and ends when the body becomes visibly bloated. During this stage, decomposition causes few observable changes in the body's outward appearance....The flies are not easily fooled, however. They quickly converge on the corpse....I can expect the two most common species of blow flies to arrive within 10 minutes of death....


For the uninitiated, forensic entomology depends on the fact that the corpse-loving creepy-crawlies of the world adhere to a remarkably predictable schedule when arriving, dining and departing from the grand buffet of the newly deceased. We have the Fresh Stage and the Bloated Stage and the Decay Stage and the Post-Decay Stage and the Skeletal Stage, and each has its designated participants lining up for the feast like so many cruise-ship guests at their slotted dinner hour. From the presence or absence of various bugs in various stages of their lives, the forensic entomologist can conclude useful information such as when death occurred, and in cases where the body has been moved, may be able to tell where too.

Now all this is quite interesting, but the question is whether it's interesting enough to sustain an entire book for a general audience. And the answer is that it isn't, unless, I think, you are willing to admit that most of your readers are picking up the book in eager anticipation of the grossness factor, and are willing, furthermore, to give 'em what they're looking for.

Unfortunately, Goff plays it straight, and who can blame him? The man's a legitimate scientist and wants to be taken seriously and not thought to be making wit at the expense of the dead. Furthermore, he admits that a certain degree of distance is necessary to shield him from the real horror of what he faces--rotting, stinking corpses crawling with maggots and other delights. The result, however, is a book that skips quickly over the icky stuff and the backstory on the bodies and instead spends a great deal of time on rather dry technical laboratory details with first instars and Berlese funnels and soil fauna.

That being said, if you have a taste for the grotesquely fascinating, A Fly for the Prosecution is worth a read. But probably not over dinner.
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