Galileo’s Daughter: A Drama of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel
I read this fascinating book during the last two weeks I spent at my families’ farm in Italy this summer, and I must agree with the editor’s assessment that this is ‘an unforgettable story.’
I thoroughly enjoyed the details of Galileo’s life, generally recognized as ‘the father of modern science,’ the description of major European events and personalities of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the gradual unveiling of the loving and intelligent character of Suor Maria Celeste, Galileo’s daughter.
Galileo Galilei lived between 1564 and 1642, and resided in Pisa, Padua, and mostly in Florence, with a few trips to Rome. Although he never left Italy, his inventions and ideas became well known to the European intelligentsia of his time. During the second half of his life he lived the drama of a devout Catholic who believed something Catholics were forbidden to believe – the sun, not the earth, was at the center of the universe.
As scholars in this period tended to do, Galileo avoided marrying his mate of many years, Marina Gamba, who bore him three children. Galileo recognized their children as heirs to his lineage, but Marina Gamba married another man soon after Galileo moved to Florence to become the chief mathematician and philosopher of the Tuscan grand duke.
The eldest of Galileo’s children, Virginia, was born in 1600, and at the age of 13, both she and her younger sister, Livia, entered the convent of San Matteo in Arcetri . A few years later, both of them took the vows as cloistered sisters under the Rule of Saint Clare in the same convent, withthe names of Suor Maria Celeste, and Suor Arcangela, respectively.
Dava Sobel has woven, in a masterful way, Suor Maria Celeste’s letters to her father within the detailed and often anguished story of his life and vicissitudes. Unfortunately Galileo’s side of this correspondence is not still in existence.
We learn that Galilei’s interest in the Copernican system begun with the discovery of sunspots and the flux and reflux of tides, which he studied after inventing the telescope. As the sun-centered doctrine went against the Ptolemaic and Catholic views of the world, which saw the earth at the center of the universe, Galilei was instructed, in 1616, to ababdon his belief in the Copernican system and regard it only as an hypothesis. In 1633 Galilei’s writing and publication of his ‘Dialogue,’ in which both systems are discussed
with a clear preference given to the sun-centered theory, was regarded as an infringement to the previous injunction, and Galilei was forced to abjure his writings and his book was banned. In fact, this book was banned until 1822, when the Catholic Church accepted the teaching of the sun-centered theory of the universe.
The real charm and interest of this book (at least for me) lies in the way Sobel has balanced the details of the scientific inventions and thoughts of Galilei, with details of his private life – highlighted by the comments of his daughter Suor Maria Celeste. The human side of this great man is revealed through the loving words written by his daughter to him, such as ‘..every hour seems a thousand years to me while I await that promised day when I shall see you again’, or ‘Dearest lord father, I wanted to write to you now, to tell you I partake in your torments, so as to make them lighter for you to bear…’
Sobel has unveiled little-known details of the life and the love the united father and daughter. In fact, I hope you will read up to the last page to find out that.
Paola Malpezzi Price Ph.D.