Sobel, Dava 1947-

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SOBEL, Dava 1947-

PERSONAL: Born June 15, 1947, in New York, NY; daughter of Samuel H. (a physician) and Betty (a chemist; maiden name, Gruber) Sobel; married Arthur C. Klein (an author; divorced, December 14, 1995); children: Zoe Rachel, Issac. Education: State University of New York—Binghamton, Bx.H.S. of Science, 1969. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Jewish. Hobbies and other interests: Ballroom dancing, amateur astronomy.

ADDRESSES: Agent—Michael Carlisle, William Morris Agency, 1325 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019-6011.

CAREER: Author. New York Times, New York, NY, science reporter, 1979-82; astronomy columnist for East Hampton Independent, East Hampton, NY, 1994—, and for the Discovery Channel Online, 1996—.

MEMBER: Planetary Society, National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, American Association of University Women.

AWARDS, HONORS: American Psychological Foundation National Media Award, 1980; Lowell Thomas Award from Society of American Travel Writers, 1992; gold medal, Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), 1994, for an article on longitude published in Harvard Magazine; Los Angeles Times Book Award for Science and Technology, 1999, for Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love.


(With Frank D. Drake) Is Anyone Out There?: The Scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1992.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 1995, new edition with William J. H. Andrewes published as The Illustrated Longitude, 1998.

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 1999.

(Translator and annotator) Maria Celeste Galilei, Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo, 1623-1633, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 2001.

(Editor) The Best American Science Writing 2004, Ecco (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Astronomy, Audubon, Discover, Harvard Magazine, Ladies Home Journal, Life, New York Times Magazine, New Yorker, New Woman, Omni, Redbook, Vogue, and Working Woman.


Backache Relief: The Ultimate Second Opinion from Back-Pain Sufferers Nationwide Who Share Their Successful Healing Experiences, Times Books (New York, NY), 1985.

Arthritis: What Works, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1989.

Arthritis: What Exercises Work, St. Martin's Press, 1993 (New York, NY), published with foreword by John Bland as Arthritis: What Works; Breakthrough Relief for the Rest of Your Life, Even after Drugs and Surgery Have Failed, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1995.

Backache: What Exercises Work, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1994.

ADAPTATIONS: Longitude was adapted for television.

WORK IN PROGRESS: A book about the solar system; a book of astronomical essays.

SIDELIGHTS: Former New York Times science reporter Dava Sobel has earned great critical recognition for the books Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time and Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. Both are highly unusual books that became international bestsellers. Longitude is the true story of the quest to devise a reliable navigational instrument for sailors; Galileo's Daughter creates a unique portrait of the famous astronomer Galileo Galilei, using letters from his cloistered daughter as its foundation. On the strength of these two books, Entertainment Weekly contributor Gillian Flynn praised Sobel as "a writer who has reached through the brambled, layered detritus of hundreds of years, retrieved a forgotten clock maker and a lost daughter, and gently restored these strangers to all their joyful, proud, petulant, toothachy genuineness."

Described as an "elegant history" by New York Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, Longitude is the story of an eighteenth-century clockmaker's persistence in developing a sea-worthy clock by which sailors might determine longitude, the distance east or west on the earth. Throughout history, without a tool or method for determining their positions, many sailors veered off-course. This at best delayed their deliveries of goods and frequently led to ships running aground on various hazards and sinking. In 1714, Sobel relates, England's parliament addressed the dire problem by promising a reward of 20,000 pounds (the equivalent of millions of dollars by modern standards) to anyone who could solve the problem of determining longitude. Scientists knew that every hour's time difference between a ship and its destination (or port of origin) equaled a change in longitude of fifteen degrees east or west; the solution, therefore, was to create an instrument that would withstand the erratic changes in climate and humidity aboard a ship so that sailors could determine their position by the time.

John Harrison, a self-educated clockmaker, accepted the challenge, devoting some forty-six years of his life to the building of weather-and motion-proof clocks. His effort produced the chronometer and earned admiration and a monetary prize from King George III. Sobel relates many of the obstacles that Harrison had to overcome to create a working sea-clock, along with often amusing stories of solutions offered by others to the longitude problem, in her book, which, according to John Ellsworth, writing in the New York Times Book Review, "captures John Harrison's extraordinary character: brilliant, persevering and heroic in the face of adversity. He is a man you won't forget."

Longitude elicited further praise from critics, including Lehmann-Haupt, who lauded Sobel's "remarkable ability to tell a story with clarity and perfect pacing." Touched by Sobel's account of being reduced to tears upon visiting the maritime museum that houses Harrison's clocks, Lehmann-Haupt wrote: "Such is the eloquence of this gem of a book that it makes you understand exactly how she felt." Bruno Maddox expressed similar sentiments in his Washington Post Book World review: "Longitude is a simple tale, brilliantly told," Maddox wrote. "Perhaps one of the most impressive things about the book—given its subject matter—is the sheer simplicity of the whole thing....She offers us no attack on the modern assumption that time is solid and objective; she wholly refrains from rubbing readers' noses in the artificiality of meaning, etc.; she offers us nothing, in short, but measured, nearly perfect prose and a magnificent story, an extraordinary book." Longitude spent forty weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and sold more than a million copies.

While researching Longitude, Sobel came across a letter written to the seventeenth-century astronomer Galileo—who supported Nicholas Copernicus's revolutionary theory that the earth moved around the sun instead of vice versa—from his daughter. She was surprised to know that he had a child at all; further investigation revealed that he had three illegitimate offspring. His two daughters, deemed unmarriageable due to their illegitimacy, had been placed in a convent during their teenage years. The elder of the pair, who took the name Sister Maria Celeste, was a truly remarkable woman who served as herbalist and accountant to the convent. Hundreds of letters to her father showed her great intelligence and devotion to her father, who returned her affection.

"Retelling the story of Galileo's famous battle with the Inquisition over geocentricism, [Sobel] brings it to life by concentrating on the everyday—his professional feuds, his own sincere religious beliefs and—most important—his intense relationship with his eldest daughter," noted Malcolm Jones in Newsweek, who deemed the book as portraying "an epic battle over our place in the cosmos." It is well known that Galileo's theories put him in opposition with the Roman Catholic Church; the Court of the Inquisition forced him to recant, but he cleverly succeeded in setting down his works for posterity by recasting them as a fictional dialogue. He is frequently portrayed as a defiant figure, "a scientific Martin Luther," in the words of Library Journal contributor Wilda Williams, but that image is incorrect. He was a true believer who experienced a real crisis within himself over the conflict between his work and the authority of the Church. Williams quoted Sobel as saying, "Galileo remained a good Catholic to his dying day. His scientific discoveries actually strengthened his faith."

Sobel has stated that as a Jew raised in the Bronx, she had a difficult time understanding the religious world of her story—particularly Maria Celeste's life as a member of the Poor Clares, a Franciscan order dedicated to poverty and seclusion. A rich correspondence with the mother abbess of a contemporary Poor Clares convent was so enlightening to her that she told Williams, "I could now understand why even today a young woman would enter a convent and live in poverty." Many reviewers credit Galileo's Daughter with providing a fascinating look into this kind of life, as well as providing a wonderful portrait of Galileo, his family, and his world. It is a "creative and compelling work" that reveals Sobel's "technical insight and originality," according to Hilary Burton in Library Journal. The author "has a remarkable ability to explain technical subjects without being simplistic or pedantic. There is a tremendous amount of fascinating detail in this work, and yet it reads as smoothly and compellingly as fiction."

Reading Sister Maria Celeste's letters so inspired Sobel that she translated all 124 surviving letters that the woman wrote to Galileo and published them, in a bilingual edition, as Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo, 1623-1633. "Her letters show that, despite her cloistered and pious existance, she was exceptionally well-informed and open-minded," Jennifer Birriel commented in Astronomy. Sister Maria Celeste took responsibility for many of Galileo's domestic needs—mending and bleaching his shirts and collars, making cakes and candies for him—and much of their communication is about such "extremely mundane, domestic matters," Franco Mormando wrote in America. Yet "precisely because of their humble, domestic, utterly private nature, the letters help give true flesh and blood, an enlivening third dimension, to historical personages that more exalted, formal documentation—published treatises, papal bulls, inquisitorial reports—cannot supply." The letters also reveal Galileo's privileged place in society. Sister Maria Celeste frequently asked him for help in dealing with various problems around the convent, some of which required money and some which required favors from the authorities, and the evidence suggests that Galileo was always able and willing to assist the sisters. Sobel and her publisher donated all profits from the book to a Poor Clares convent in Roswell, New Mexico.

Sobel is also the coauthor, with her former husband Arthur C. Klein, of several books on back pain and arthritis, including 1989's Arthritis: What Works. Based on the authors' interviews with more than 1,000 arthritis sufferers, Arthritis: What Works discusses various methods of treatment that patients report have alleviated their pain, from traditional therapy offered by physicians and drugs, to less conventional treatments used by holistic healers. In addition, the authors share recipes and diet plans considered to be helpful in attacking arthritis through nutrition. A companion of sorts to Arthritis: What Works is Arthritis: What Exercises Work, in which Sobel and Klein describe and illustrate exercises that were reported by the arthritis sufferers they interviewed to relieve symptoms of arthritis. The authors issued a similar book, Backache: What Exercises Work, after speaking with some five hundred sufferers of back injury about activities that eased their pain and hastened their return to normal activity.



America, May 6, 2002, Franco Mormando, review of Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo, 1623-1633, p. 30.

American Scientist, March, 2000, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 173.

Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, September, 1993, Tom Easton, review of Is Anyone Out There?: The Scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, p. 165.

Astronomy, June, 1993, Dave Bruning, review of Is Anyone Out There?, p. 92; December, 1995, review of Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genuis Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problems of His Time, p. 103; March, 2000, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 103; October, 2002, Jennifer Birriel, review of Letters to Father, p. 88.

Beaver: Exploring Canada's History, August-September, 1999, Thomas Sinclair, review of Longitude, p. 44.

Booklist, September 1, 1995, Gilbert Taylore, review of Longitude, p. 23; August, 1999, Gilbert Taylor, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 1983; March 15, 2000, Whitney Scott, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 1397; December 1, 2000, Karen Harris, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 741; October 15, 2001, Gilbert Taylor, review of Letters to Father, p. 363.

Books and Culture, May, 2001, Virginia Stem Owens, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 36.

Cross Currents, winter, 2000, John Daretta, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 574.

Discover, December, 1999, Josie Glausiusz, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 116.

Economist, October 19, 1996, review of Longitude, p. S13; November 13, 1999, "Heroes of Modern Science: Loyal Child" (review of Galileo's Daughter), p. 9.

Entertainment Weekly, December 11, 1998, David Hochman, review of The Illustrated Longitude, p. 71; November 19, 1999, Gillian Flynn, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 91.

First Things, March, 2000, Elizabeth Powers, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 76.

Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, fall, 2000, Joshua A. Chamot, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 107.

Geographical, November, 1996, Claire Hutchings, reivew of Longitude, p. 58; May, 2000, review of The Illustrated Longitude, p. 93.

Hindu, May 16, 2000, review of Longitude.

Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2001, review of Letters to Father, p. 1337.

Kliatt, November, 2003, Jacqueline Edwards, review of Galileo's Daughter (audiobook), p. 55; May, 2004, Karen Reeds, review of The Illustrated Longitude, p. 42.

Library Journal, February 15, 1985, Laura Claggett, review of Backache Relief, p. 175; August, 1989, Frances Groen, review of Arthritis: What Works, p. 156; October 1, 1992, Gary D. Barber, review of Is Anyone Out There?, p. 113; November 15, 1993, Loraine F. Sweetland, review of Arthritis:What Exercises Work, p. 94; September 15, 1995, James Olson, review of Longitude, p. 90; August, 1996, Carolyn Alexander, review of Longitude (audiobook), p. 136; February 1, 1999, Michael Rogers, review of The Illustrated Longitude, p. 126; October 1, 1999, Wilda Williams, "A Father of Science, A Daughter of God," p. 128, Hilary Burton, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 131; October 1, 2001, Hilary Burton, review of Letters to Father, p. 137.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 22, 1992, p. 6.

Mercator's World, November, 1999, Cheri Brooks, review of The Illustrated Longitude, p. 54.

Natural Health, May-June, 1996, Kurt Tidmore, review of Arthritis: What Exercises Work, pp. 122-123.

New Statesman, August 9, 1996, Boyd Tonkin, review of Longitude, p. 45.

Newsweek, October 11, 1999, Malcolm Jones, "When the Earth Moved: Dava Sobel Pairs Galileo's Story with His Daughter's to Give Us Seventeenth-Century Italian Life in the Round" (review of Galileo's Daughter), p. 83.

New York Times, November 2, 1995, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Longitude, p. C 21.

New York Times Book Review, October 11, 1992, Anthony Aveni, review of Is Anyone Out There?, p. 18; November 26, 1995, John Ellsworth, review of Longitude, p. 15; October 17, 1999, p. 6.

New York Times Magazine, December 19, 1982, Josef H. Weissberg, "Short-Term Psychotherapy," p. 110.

Public Opinion Quarterly, spring, 1989, Howard Schuman, review of Backache Relief, p. 149.

Publishers Weekly, August 18, 1989, Molly McQuade, review of Arthritis: What Works, p. 60; September 7, 1992, review of Is Anyone Out There?, p. 89; June 27, 1994, review of Backache: What Exercises Work, p. 74; September 18, 1995, review of Longitude, p. 119; February 5, 1996, Paul Nathan, "Not in Our Stars," p. 24; July 19, 1999, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 170; October 4, 1999, John F. Baker, "Dava Sobel: Matters of Science and Faith," p. 48; November 1, 1999, Daisy Maryles, "A Scientific Find," p. 24; November 29, 1999, Daisy Maryles, "A Father's Pride," p. 30; August 27, 2001, review of Letters to Father, p. 63; June 14, 2004, review of The Best American Science Writing 2004, p. 52.

Quadrant, April, 2000, Peter Slezak, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 75.

School Library Journal, February, 1996, Judy McAloon, review of Longitude, p. 135.

Science, November 6, 1992, Ronald N. Bracewell, review of Is Anyone Out There?, p. 1012; October 8, 1999, review of The Illustrated Longitude, p. 248.

Scientific American, January, 1993, Philip Morrison, review of Is Anyone Out There?, p. 155.

Skeptical Inquirer, May, 2000, James C. Sullivan, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 51.

Sky & Telescope, December, 1992, Frank White, review of Is Anyone Out There?, p. 650; July, 1996, Roger W. Sinnott, review of Longitude, p. 60.

Sunday Times, December 26, 1999, "Lucky Timing from the First Lady of Longitude," p. 11.

Systems Research and Behavioral Science, January, 2001, John P. van Gigch, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 91.

Time, November 15, 1999, R. Z. Sheppard, "Footsteps No Longer: As Women's History Takes Root in the Canon, More Stories about the Past Take on a Female Voice," p. 108.

Washington Monthly, January-February, 1996, Gregg Easterbrook, review of Longitude, p. 53.

Washington Post Book World, November 26, 1995, p. 2.

World and I, April, 2000, Sara Schechner, review of Galileo's Daughter, p. 262.


Galileo's Daughter Web Site, (August 13, 2004).*