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Friday, January 23, 2009

Galileo's Daughter

Sobel, Dava. Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love.

Although her letters give such a human touch to the great man's life, this not really the story of Galileo's daughter. It is a book mainly about Galileo and some of the most important discoveries and events in his life. What makes it different from most biographies of Galileo, however, is that the book also reveals the close relationship between Galileo and his oldest daughter. It is especially interesting because the relationship was, for twenty years, conducted mostly through letters.

Worried that his illegitimate daughters were unmarriageable, Galileo placed Virginia and her younger sister in the convent of the Poor Clares when Virginia was thirteen. She took the name Suor Marie Celeste (to honor her father's interest in the heavens) and she remained sequestered there for the next twenty years, the entire rest of her life. Her life was so circumscribed by poverty and labor that it is amazing that she seemed to blossom quietly in spite of her situation.

The book opens with a letter from Marie Celeste to Galileo, but quickly moves into the story of Galileo-- his birth, education, relationship with the mother of his children, his theories and experiments. All of this information is presented in an interesting manner, so while I longed for more information about Marie Celeste, I was kept well occupied with Galileo himself.

In the first of Galileo's problems with the Inquisition (over Copernicus' theory of a sun centered universe), Galileo is exonerated. However, any individuals supporting the Copernican theory (and there were many others besides Galileo who found the sun centered universe more logical than a universe with the earth at the center) were warned that to treat it as anything other than a theory would be considered "heretical."

Galileo's first contretemps with the Inquisition occurs about the time that Virginia is old enough to take her vows and becomes Suor Marie Celeste. It is also about this time that the letters play a larger part in the book. Here is a portion of one of her letters to her father:

I am returning the rest of your shirts that we have sewn, and the leather apron, too, mended as best I could....Now I am tending to the work on the linens, so that I hope you will be able to send me the trim for borders at the ends, and I reminde you, Sire, that the trimmings needs to be wide, because the linens themselves are rather short.

Her letters are often in this domestic vein, but they are also in response to Galileo's letters and to the events in his life. The love and affection is obvious on both sides even though we don't have the benefits of Galileo's letters. Marie Celeste occasionally petitions her father for help (often for the convent or for other nuns), and in the follow-up letters thanks him for generosity.

The plague returns in 1630, and Sobel includes a good bit of interesting information about the deaths and various preventive measures undertaken. The Poor Clares, already confined to their convent, found themselves even further cut off, but it did not prevent Marie Celeste from sending medicines she prepared herself for her father and heart-felt prayers for his safety.

During this outbreak of the plague, Galileo once again finds himself in trouble with the Inquisition and the Pope, himself. At 68, old and ill, Galileo's latest book angers the pontiff and results in his being called to Rome. This time, Galileo does not fare so well. Throughout the trial, and his resulting frustrations and depressions, Marie Celeste offers support and prayers. All of her energy is expended on convent labor and worry for her father.

The final chapters are touching, and the reader grieves for both Galileo and Marie Celeste, but these chapters are also moving in the love and loyalty Galileo inspired in his daughter and among his friends and colleagues. Especially admirable are the efforts of Vicenzio Viviani, who at sixteen became his assistant, writing letters for the almost blind Galileo, reading aloud the replies, and aiding him in every way. Viviani continued his devotion after Galileo's death and is responsible for the tomb and its occupants.

A rewarding read!

Nonfiction. Biography. 1999. 368 pages.


  1. I have this one in the TBR pile and was just thinking about it the other day. I'll have to get to it! Thanks for the review!

  2. Great review. I recently added this one to my TBR list and look forward to reading it someday.

  3. Amy - Sobel covers biography, science, and love in this one. Hope you enjoy it!

    Framed - It really is an excellent biography!

  4. I almost didn't read this one but I was so glad I did. I learned a lot about Galileo and it was well and interestingly written!

  5. What a great review! The book was a real eye-opener for me and I loved that it seemed "easy" to read. I was worried it was going to dwell a lot on just the science parts and I'd be lost! :)

  6. I was looking forward to reading this before and now I am looking forward to it even more! I think the next chance I get I must start reading it.

  7. Michelle - I was glad I read it, too. I really liked seeing Galileo as a man, rather than just a mathematician and astronomer.

    Iliana - A good historian or biographer can make the subject interesting. Sobel did a great job in drawing the reader into their lives!

    stefanie - It is a very readable biography, concentrating on the human aspects rather than just the science.

  8. Galileo's Daughter was such a satisfying read. I picked it up several years ago when I was feeling particularly whimsical about the stars and I was captivated by it. It is a book that I often recommend. It was interesting to read/think about how Galileo had to struggle to be faithful to the church while knowing the truth of scientific discovery. I thought the book did a good job of being respectful to the religious aspects. It seems to be more in fashion to knock belief systems nowadays rather than treating them with an open mind.

    Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Fantastic book.

  9. Carl - You are right about the aspect of faith. My previous encounters with Galileo never hinted at his earnest faith and his attempts to show that an sun- centered universe did nothing to contradict the Bible.

    The quote that he liked that said (can't remember who said it and it is paraphrased because I've already returned the book to the library) that the Bible isn't about how the heavens go, but about how we go to heaven really illustrates his adherence to his religion.

  10. I know so little about Galileo. This sounds like an interesting book, Jenclair. Thank you for the great review.

  11. Thanks for the great review. I am looking forward to reading this one.

  12. LF - Most of us probably don't much about Galileo other than the few facts included in text books. Maybe that is why I enjoyed it so much--Sobel makes the period come alive.

    Nicole - Hope you enjoy it!