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 . . . .


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."

Debate on floating reopened

In 1611, a little more than a year after Galileo published the celestial discoveries he'd made through his telescope, he joined a debate about floating bodies. Ice raised the question, since Galileo's contemporaries believed ice to be heavier than liquid water, despite the fact that it floated. They attributed ice's buoyancy to its flat shape, abetted by water's resistance to penetration. Galileo countered that ice must be less dense than liquid: Ice of any shape stays afloat, while ice forcibly submerged in water resurfaces with no apparent resistance.

To the modern ear, the issue sounds trivial and easily decided, but Galileo's view of ice as rarefied water threatened to unravel the prevailing philosophy of science. Therefore the discussion spread from a friend's home to a wider argument with angry contenders, numerous publications on both sides of the issue, and Galileo's defense of his position in a staged debate at the Medici court.

Last July, an international group of scientists assembled in Florence to reopen the debate because, as Barry Ninham, one of the organizers, told me via e-mail, "Galileo's topic, 'Why Ice Floats on Water,' is still not resolved." Mistakes were made on both sides. The behavior of water raises more questions now than it did then.

The meeting, called Aqua Incognita, convened in a convent for five days and drew some twenty participants from Australia, Europe, Israel, Japan, Russia, and the United States. The proceedings are soon to be published as Aqua Incognita: Why Ice Floats on Water, and Galileo 400 Years On. Topics include the properties and structure of water, water's role in biology, and the effects of light and magnetic fields on water.

"Our debates were informal and our participants were limited to 20, with occasional attendance by wives and non-specialists, as for the original debates 400 years ago," write Ninham and co-editor Pierandrea Lo Nostro in the volume's introduction. "Florence itself has many attractions, being the center of the Renaissance. So it was difficult for such a meeting to fail."

Confident that Galileo would have approved, the editors "hope these contributions will provide a useful perspective and entrée for anyone interested in water in its manifold manifestations. And an insight into the science of water for the third meeting 400 years hence."

I received an early invitation to the gathering, thanks to my account of the 1611 debate in Galileo's Daughter. Although I could not attend, Ninham and Lo Nostro have now paid me another compliment by mentioning me in their book. They dedicate Aqua Incognita to the late Enzo Ferroni, whom they describe as "the pioneer in Italy of Physical Chemistry of Colloids and Interfaces, and after the 1966 flood of Florence the first scientist to apply the science of colloids and interfaces to the restoration and conservation of works of art. And to Dava Sobel for her marvelous book, Galileo’s Daughter, which gave us the human side."