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Acclaimed science writer headlines Buffalo Humanities Festival

The Buffalo Humanities Festival, now in its third year, is a collaboration among UB, Canisius College, Niagara University and SUNY Buffalo State.

By BERT GAMBINI

Published September 6, 2016

There is tremendous excitement tied to the resurgence of Buffalo, but it’s also a time to think of a renaissance in critical ways.
David Castillo, director
UB Humanities Institute

Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel, author of “Longitude,” “Galileo’s Daughter,” “The Planets” and “A More Perfect Heaven,” will be the featured speaker at the Buffalo Humanities Festival taking place Sept. 22-24 at various cultural and educational locations in Western New York.

Sobel, a former science reporter for The New York Times and frequent contributor to Audubon, Discover and The New Yorker, will deliver her keynote talk, “The Rebirth of the Heavens,” at 8 p.m. Sept. 23 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. A book signing will follow her lecture.

Tickets for Sobel’s keynote are $20 for general admission and $15 for students.

A complete festival schedule, including ticket information and a downloadable program, is available online.

The Buffalo Humanities Festival is the signature outreach event of UB's Humanities Institute (HI). Now in its third year, the three-day festival is a collaboration among UB, Canisius College, Niagara University and SUNY Buffalo State.

Each year, HI chooses a theme and builds programming around it in order to reach the widest possible audience. The festival features leading humanities scholars and artists, but the institute’s goal is to engage the general public in a historically informed dialogue about the big questions and challenges of our time, says David Castillo, HI director and UB professor of romance languages and literatures.

This year’s theme of “Renaissance Remix” is an opportunity through the festival’s varied and wide-reaching presentations, conversations, films and performances to create a bridge joining past and present, spanning the historical Renaissance, the Harlem Renaissance and Buffalo’s renaissance, according to Castillo.

The exploration of that theme begins with the festival’s kickoff event, a town hall conversation on race and segregation as part of the New York Council for the Humanities “Democratic Dialogue Project.” It will take place at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 22 at the Central Branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, 1 Lafayette Square in downtown Buffalo.

Castillo says there is tremendous excitement tied to the resurgence of Buffalo, but it’s also a time to think of a renaissance in critical ways.

“Notions of renewal, rebirth, resurgence and renaissance are meant as positive qualifiers that we use to make sense of complex processes of urban transformation, but who are the beneficiaries and who is being left behind?” asks Castillo. “What can we learn about this by looking back to the Renaissance of the 1500s or the Harlem Renaissance?

“The theme of ‘Renaissance Remix’ allows us to discuss these questions and to reimagine the present and future of our communities in creative, self-reflective and critical ways as part of a public dialogue involving artists, intellectuals, community leaders and engaged citizens.”

Sobel’s talk the following day will shift the discussion of rebirth from the city to the stars.

Working with the letters exchanged by the Italian astronomer and mathematician Galileo and Maria Celeste, his illegitimate daughter, Sobel makes a historical journey that captures the tenor of the scientific revolution and puts her audience in the place of those people who would have been exposed to Galileo’s ideas for the first time.

Sobel previously visited this story in her critically acclaimed “Galileo’s Daughter,” a book of which The New York Times said, “we hear Galileo’s voice, we sense his pain and share his excitement, and once again we marvel at how the human mind, and heart, can lift so much.”

The correspondence between father and daughter, however, can serve only as a companion to the story, since Galileo’s writings to his admiring daughter have been lost. Only Celeste’s letter is extant. It is Sobel who builds the bridge across the absent writings that takes readers to a world that had alarmingly been shifted from its established center of the cosmos.

“In late August, there was news of a planet in the habitable zone of the star closest to our own sun. There was surprise that another world so close to Earth might contain water and possibly support life,” says Castillo. “Now imagine what it would have been like for someone in the late 16th or early 17th century to be exposed to empirical evidence that contradicted much of what they thought they knew about the world.

“That would be shocking,” he says.

A native of the Bronx, Sobel grew up within walking distance of the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden. That convenient inspiration helped launch her career as a writer and educator. In addition to her books, Sobel has held teaching positions at the University of Chicago, Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, and most recently at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

She is the recipient of several literary prizes and honorary degrees, and also has an asteroid named in her honor.

Her forthcoming book, “The Glass Universe,” tells the story of the women at the Harvard College Observatory who made groundbreaking scientific discoveries in the late 19th century.

The final day of programming on Sept. 24, happening inside and on the grounds of Rockwell Hall on the SUNY Buffalo State campus, will include talks on Buffalo architecture, a discussion about novelist and activist Wendell Berry, Black Soldiers and Folk Culture in the Harlem Renaissance, and Iroquois revitalization, among others.

There’s also a wealth of outdoor family activities planned for Saturday, including a kids’ tent and a Renaissance Faire that’s free and open to the public. The faire will feature elements of the European Renaissance of the 16th century and Buffalo’s cultural resurgence. Activities and entertainment for all ages include music,a sonnet-slam and participation in public art, dances, and demonstrations, as well as interaction in physical fitness, athletics, fiber arts, bicycling and a KanJam challenge, with Castillo and his predecessor as HI director, UB history professor Erik Seeman, taking on all comers in the popular outdoor lawn game invented in Buffalo.

Although the two have been honing their skills, festival guests don’t have to worry about facing two ringers.

“We started practicing just to make sure we don’t embarrass ourselves,” Castillo says.