Turning the Pages

Oddly enough, I read a bestseller recently. This almost never happens, due in large part to the number of courses I’m taking at any given time. But a good friend lent me her copy of Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel (1999), and I just couldn’t pass it up. Mostly, this is because I’m such a science buff, that anything related to a famous scientific historical figure is a must-see for me. Some of my response also has to do with trusting my friend’s judgement.

More a biography of Galileo Galilei than of his daughter, Virginia (who was known for all of her adult life as Suor Maria Celeste), this book is based on actual letters from a daughter to her father. The author mentions that S. Maria Celeste’s collected letters from her father were disposed of by her Mother Superior, a tragic loss to history.

While this biography explores Galileo’s life, describing his publication history, his ideas, and his deep beliefs in science, the scientific method, religion and the Church, it also describes the homely details one would expect in letters from a daughter to her father. The biography includes how many collars she had starched for him, admonitions to return a basket he’d been lent, and pleas for money from the nun (a member of the Poor Claires).

Primarily, this book reminds us that Galileo was not always lauded as the father of modern science. First, he was a man. It reminds us that Galileo’s supposed statement after his guilty verdict at his heresy trial, “But still, it moves!” is apocryphal, and would have been a very, very bad idea (especially with the judges, who could have had him killed, standing right there). It also reminds us that Galileo was not killed for his revolutionary scientific ideas. Instead, he was imprisoned for them, mostly in a very comfortable embassy, though he was charged for at least part of his upkeep.

Galileo’s daughter loved her father very much. It is obvious in the excerpts from her letters printed in the book that she was very fond of him and likewise he of her. Despite the fact that Galileo never married his children’s mother, he clearly cared deeply for all three of the children. He had the Pope legitimize his son when the young man reached adulthood. He also did his best to help the children financially and politically.

Sobel writes in a fairly dry voice, but it’s worth plugging through to see the love and affection between one of the foremost thinkers of the Renaissance and his beloved eldest daughter. The book is also an interesting peek into life in the 17th century: communications technologies, travel, economics, religion and politics. The figures, diagrams and illustrations, including scanned copies of some parts of the original letters, add a great deal to the impact of this historical memoir. The timeline at the end of the book enhances the experience, letting the reader better place certain events in their historical context. Did you know, for example, that Galileo died on January 8th, 1642 and that Isaac Newton was born on December 25 of that same year?

Galileo’s Daughter is definitely worth a look, but I’d borrow a copy, rather than shelling out for the book.

Sobel, D. (1999). Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love. New York: Penguin Putnam.