Byline: Harry Ritchie
It is one of the bestselling books of the decade, and perhaps the most surprising. After all, studies of 18th-century horology don't usually bring their authors global fame and fortune. Which probably explains why an unlucky 13 publishers rejected a proposal for a book by an unknown science journalist called Dava Sobel about the discovery of longitude. Those 13 publishers must still be thoroughly bruised from kicking themselves, for Longitude has been on the bestseller lists for nearly two years and sold an extraordinary 400,000 hardback copies in the UK alone.
Sobel's story, about the Yorkshire clockmaker John Harrison's creation of a clock that would be accurate at sea and thereby define a ship's longitude, so captivated the public imagination that her book even earned a name-check on Only Fools and Horses.
Given the astounding impact of Longitude, it is no surprise that Dava Sobel's thousands of fans - and, of course, her publishers - have been eagerly awaiting her next book. Ironically enough, the very success of Longitude has meant that this wait has been a lengthy one, because the several million pounds that Sobel earned from Longitude have bought her time, so that she was able to devote four years to the research and writing of this next work.
Galileo's Daughter, which will be published next month, describes the life and work of one of the world's greatest Renaissance scientists, and, above all, the most important relationship of his life: with his illegitimate daughter, Virginia.
For most of her life, Virginia was known as Sister Maria Celeste because she was a nun, a member of the order of the Poor Clares, who eked out a life of impoverished piety in a closed convent. When she learned about this relationship, and the existence of 120 letters from Maria Celeste to her devoted father, Sobel realised she would have to rethink what she had planned to be a straightforward account of Galileo's life and work. She also realised that she would have to rethink her own assumptions about Galileo's conflict with the church.
The usual version of Galileo, one which has almost become a legend, has him as a hero and even a martyr of scientific enquiry, a man who boldly proclaimed that the Bible was wrong, and that it was the sun, not the earth, that was the centre of the universe. According to the myth, Galileo was rewarded for this proof of Copernicus's theory by being oppressed and censored by an ignorant, frightened priesthood - even tortured and blinded by the Inquisition - because he dared to question and correct the traditional, biblical world view.
This version of Galileo's stand against the church has passed into history because it has such power and resonance, first for protestants and then agnostics and atheists, who have all seen Galileo as a man of reason and enlightenment confronted by the forces of Catholic superstition and Papal fallibility. Yet how can any of this square with the fact that he placed his dearest daughter in a convent and exchanged letters with her about the need for faith and the glory of God?
The truth seems to be that, far from being a proto-atheist, Galileo Galilei was actually a devout believer, albeit one who showed a great talent for controversy. His terrific ability to wind people up by proving their most cherished beliefs to be wrong dogged Galileo throughout his life. This started when he was a young mathematics professor in Pisa, where he disproved the notion that a heavy object fell faster than a light one by climbing to the top of the town's leaning tower and dropping two objects of different weight, which duly plonked to the ground at the same time. It was an elegant and dramatic experiment that earned such notoriety Galileo was promptly advised to leave Pisa.
In 1592, when he was 28-years-old, Galileo moved to the University of Padua, and it was there that he started to live with his mistress, Marina Gamba. …