October 2003

Laura Sorensen


Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel

There is an immense drama in the stars, in the way the planets swing around one another. But an equally intriguing drama existed in the discovery of that swing. Dava Sobel explores the life and times of Galileo Galilei in her partly epistolary, partly historic book Galileo's Daughter. The book is factual and very chronological, taking the reader on a tour of Galileo's revolutionary ideas regarding space, gravity, and philosophy. But its real strength lies in Sobel's ability to bring Galileo's conflicts and relationships to a readership which can only imagine his trials.

Copernicus first put forth the idea that the world revolved around the sun, and Galileo decided, after many years of experimentation, that Copernican theory was much more likely, mathematically, than Ptolemy's established philosophy (that the earth was the center of the universe and everything revolved around it). In 1616, he was asked by the Catholic church to cease writing about the idea, for it went in the face of Scripture. Most good Catholics believed, as in Psalms 103:1, that God "...fixed the Earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever."

Galileo told the Church that he would never hold or defend the theory, but in 1632, he published Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican. It was the most radical work of its time, widely revered by many scholars of philosophy and mathematics. In spite of having both Roman and Florentine censors approve the Dialogue, and in spite of calling his own work a hypothesis and a flight of fancy, he was put on trial for heresy and convicted. His book stayed on the Catholic church's banned books list for two hundred years despite a lively black market trade.

Galileo's most potent enemy was Pope Urban VIII, who had once been Galileo's supporter. Unfortunately, war raged between Catholics and Protestants, and Urban saw the Dialogue as a blow to his own power. Galileo had written it in Italian, the language of the public, instead of the erudite Latin. Urban felt that if the populace got wind of this new theory, they would decide the Church was not as knowledgeable as it seemed. Urban condemned the elderly, frail Galileo to house arrest.

Through all of his imaginings and work, his friends and foes and trials, Galileo had one constant. Her name was Suor (Sister) Maria Celeste Galilei, his eldest daughter. She had been in the Poor Clares convent since the age of thirteen, and when Galileo died he left at least a hundred letters from her. Sobel translated them and has included many of them as context and the most interesting part of the text.

Maria Celeste was intelligent, well-spoken, and loved her father as dearly as he loved her. She supported him through his trials, and he supported her with cash (the Poor Clares depended entirely upon alms, and Galileo couldn't really complain, since he put her there to begin with). She sewed curtains for him, made him candied citron, and gave him advice on his infirmities. She knew, as Galileo himself averred, that he was not an heretic, but a staunch Catholic who could not refute the truth of his theories. She read and discussed his work with him and was his strongest ally.

In her letters, the reader learns many details of 17th century life. Plague, dysentery, and other mysterious sicknesses abounded. Travel was hard, and Maria Celeste longed for her father to live close enough to visit her. While he chafed under arrest in Rome, she helped run his estate. When he wrote the most important book of his career, Two New Sciences, she prayed for his health and eternal blessing. And when he finally was allowed to go home, they had a year together before she succumbed to dysentery at age thirty-four.

Sobel's detailing of genius and power struggles becomes a tribute to Galileo's longevity and personality. Perhaps it is difficult to understand a time period where religion ruled so absolutely that something now as obvious as the movement of the solar system could have been suppressed. But any reader can relate to the familial connection and the humor and love that passed from daughter to father (even if she did call him "Most beloved Lord Father").

Galileo's letters to Maria Celeste were never found -- when she died, the story goes that her abbess burned them because they were from a heretic -- but readers can imagine their own fatherly Galileo. He outlived her by eight years, but when he died, he had her buried with him. Sobel's intricate research and deft reconstruction are a benefit to any reader who wants more than the dry details of heresy and a trial. There are more well-known father-daughter teams of the time -- the Gentileschis come to mind, and Artemisia was only seven years older than Maria Celeste -- but Sobel has brought into sharp focus a relatively unknown woman who impacted our modern life through her unfailing support of her father.

Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel
Walker & Company
ISBN: 0140280553
398 pages