Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of his daughter Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has crafted a biography that dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishments of a mythic figure whose early-seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion-the man Albert Einstein called "the father of modern physics-indeed of modern science altogether." It is also a stunning portrait of Galileo's daughter, a person hitherto lost to history, described by her father as "a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me." Moving between Galileo's grand public life and Maria Celeste's sequestered world, Sobel illuminates the Florence of the Medicis and the papal court in Rome during the pivotal era when humanity's perception of its place in the cosmos was about to be overturned. During that same time, while the bubonic plague wreaked its terrible devastation and the Thirty Years' War tipped fortunes across Europe, Galileo sought to reconcile the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic with the heavens he revealed through his telescope. Filled with human drama and scientific adventure, Galileo's Daughter is an unforgettable story.
Likely you're already pretty familiar with the name Galileo Galilei, but if not, here's a rundown for you. Galileo is now known as being one of the most famous (possibly THE most famous?) astronomers and mathematicians of the 17th century. His work and studies also earned him the titles of physicist, inventor, and professor (teaching courses in mathematics and military architecture at various Italian universities, even teaching some of the Medici children for a time).
What Galileo might be more well known for now is him being placed under indefinite house arrest after being so bold as to come out and proclaim that the universe might, in fact, NOT revolve around Earth. He goes on to say that not only Earth but all the other planets rotate around the sun! GASP! We can laugh now, having centuries to benefit from being privy to astounding advancements in the field of astronomy, but back in Galileo's day, his statement was considered full on heresy. Funny thing though, he wasn't even the first guy to put forth the idea! In the year 1600, just a year before Galileo's first daughter, Virginia (the daughter referenced in Sobel's title), was born, Friar Giordano Bruno posed the same idea. Know what happened to him? BURNED AT THE STAKE. Church was not having your new fangled scientific theories back then.
In Galileo's case, he was a deeply devout Catholic, but he was also a firm supporter of the ideas of Copernicus, one example being when Galileo took on Monsignor Francesco Ignoli, Secretary of the Congregation of Propogation Of The Faith (imagine trying to order letterhead for that office!). In a letter addressed to Galileo, Ignoli relentlessly bashed all of Copernicus' major points. At first Galileo chose to not respond. Not wanting to "feed the trolls" as us in the online crowd commonly like to call it, he initially didn't see much point in offering a comeback. But when he started to notice that his silence was being interpreted as acceptance of Ignoli's views, THEN Galileo felt compelled to set the record straight.
from Galileo's response letter to Monsignor Ignoli
Galileo sent off his 50 page "Reply to Ignoli" to friends and family in Rome in October of 1624. Curiously, because of lengthy delays caused by changes Prince Cesi and other Roman colleagues wished to insert for prudence's sake, the "Reply to Ignoli" never reached Ignoli himself. A few manuscript copies circulated cautiously around Rome, however, and the pope was treated to at least a partial private reading in December. No explosion erupted from Urban in reaction to the "Reply". Indeed, His Holiness remarked on the aptness of its examples and experiments. And therefore, no apparent obstacle stood in the way of Galileo's expressing the same ideas in a book, which he now envisioned as a playlike discussion among a group of fictional friends, with the working title "Dialogue on the Tides"
~ from Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel
By June 1630, Dialogue on the Tides was approved for publication, but with stipulations. Galileo was informed that the pope disliked the working title, and the preface and ending must be altered to reflect the pope's philosophy on science which meant that Galileo's text needed to have a more obvious lean toward "the mysterious omnipotence of God", as Sobel phrases it. Didn't matter what Galileo was proving or disproving with scientific fact. The back and forth on the stipulations caused the actual publication of Galileo's book to be delayed until February 1632. Nearly 2 years of haggling! Even with negotiations, being approved for publication, all of that... the Vatican was not pleased with the final product. In fact, they were so upset, by September of 1632 an order was sent out for the book to cease being sold and Galileo got summons from his local Inquisition panel. Galileo's health was extremely frail during this time, his doctors even advising that he not be moved from his home, but the Vatican's response to the news was that either Galileo show his face willingly or prepare to come in in shackles. Seeing no other choice but to submit, Galileo made his travel arrangements but not without first making sure his will was up to date!
During his Inquisition interviews, Galileo admitted that he went back and read over the text after publication and found holes in some of his reasonings, areas that lacked sufficient scientific proof. (BTW, Sobel's book here includes a transcript of Galileo's actual testimony during those interviews). Even so, the then 70 year old and sickly Galileo was still charged with heresy and given indefinite house arrest. Interestingly though, even with this verdict, there were three men on the deciding panel who REFUSED to sign their names to the written verdict! It is rumored that Galileo muttered "but it still moves" under his breath after signing his own name to the affidavit, but Sobel argues that Galileo wouldn't have been so stupid as to say such a thing in front of a group of men who held such power over his life at that moment (though I have to admit, if it DID happen, that would've been pretty badass of the guy!).
As for the book itself, Dialogue of the Tides (the "working" title stayed put through all this) was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1664 and remained there for nearly 200 years. Still, copies of the work traveled through various black markets across Europe (an English translation was even printed up in 1661). Though under house arrest, Galileo continued to offer tutoring / mentorship services within his home and went on to write more books on theories of motion and mechanics. The Two New Sciences was published in 1638. It was weeks before he was sent his own copy but by then his struggles with cataracts & glaucoma had become too much of a problem for him to be able to read much of anything. It's been speculated by some historians (going by the scientist's surviving correspondence where he describes struggles with constant pain) that in his later years he may also struggled with gout, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney stones, hernia issues, chronic eye infections and insomnia (probably as a result from all the physical pain!) before finally succumbing to death in January 1642.
All this on Galileo, why haven't I mentioned the daughter yet? Well, truthfully I have a bit of an issue with this book having the title Galileo's Daughter because in actuality much of what I read was just about the man himself; scenes of the daughter being interjected here and there but not as strongly as one might presume judging from this title. In fact, Sobel barely references the daughter in this title -- except to mention her birth and taking her convent vows -- until about 100 pages in. We get to know her a bit and then she frequently pops back out of the spotlight except through excerpts of her letters to her father from time to time. But here is what I gathered about this woman largely lost to history (but less so than her siblings!): Galileo's eldest daughter, born Virginia, was the eldest of three illegitimate children Galileo fathered. Because Galileo never married Virginia's mother, Virginia herself was deemed "unmarriageable", so it was decided she would join convent life. Thanks dad!
It's all good though. Virginia actually took quite well to the nunnery, being placed with the Florentine order of the Poor Clares at the age of 13; the Poor Clares being a sisterhood of voluntary extreme poverty. Extreme even by "took an oath of poverty" standards. Not only were their habits made of the roughest material, but their meager pantries were kept to only what was absolutely necessary for survival. It was not uncommon for sisters to be bordering on starvation in order to feel closer to God. In the days of Sister Clare herself, the Vatican actually feared the woman WOULD starve herself to death!
Virginia took the name Sister Celeste as a nod to her father's work and general love of stars, which she greatly admired. The strong bond between Galileo and his eldest was largely due to Celeste being the most curious and intelligent (in his opinion) of his children. Another of Galileo's daughters, Livia, also joined the same convent shortly after her sister, taking the wickedly cool name Sister Arcangela, but had much more of a struggle acclimating to the environment. Many of Celeste's letters in this book make brief mention of Livia's somewhat morose attitude most days, one letter plainly stating "Livia is already displaying a morbid tendency to melancholy and withdrawal that would shade her adult personality." Livia's struggles made me feel for her and also made me more curious about her in general but sadly Sobel doesn't go into much detail about this daughter, perhaps just because there's even less about her than Celeste.
While I found Celeste's letters interesting, I was surprised at how few were actually included in this book, seeing as how the synopsis references how Sobel "crafts a narrative from 124 surviving letters between father and daughter." Sister Celeste seemed like a woman with a good bit of depth too her but I also felt like she was sometimes WAY too hard on herself, in some letters referring to herself as someone of "meager intelligence" or writing to her father to profusely apologize for things that struck me as insubstantial errors or wrongdoings. Humility is admirable, but not when it starts to border on self abuse.
Overall, for the amount of information Sobel covers in this dual biography of sorts, while I didn't find the writing style itself consistently, 100% engaging, the approach I would say is definitely accessible to the average reader. It's a solidly entertaining and educational read for those interested in Galileo or the time in which he lived. There is also an element to Galileo's life story that can inspire thinkers and dreamers of today's world. Think about it -- the guy was willing to challenge not only his own religious upbringing and beliefs that went against his research, but also fellow scientists who were comfortably stuck in their ways, in order to unlock the mysteries of the natural world. His life's work is proof that the naysaying of "haters" as we label them today is based in fear and discomfort with the unknown. Was he always in the right? No, not always, but at least he was brave enough to branch out and challenge himself and others!