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Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love (original 1999; edition 2011)

by Dava Sobel

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JGolomb's review
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
What Dava Sobel does best is connect world-shattering science with the individuals who brought that discipline or discovery to light. Beyond that, she provides the context of the world in which they lived. In writing about Copernicus and John ‘Longitude’ Harrison, she wrote of worlds on the cusp of modernity, one world much closer to the dark Middle Ages, another in the throes of a technological evolution. In “Galileo’s Daughter”, Sobel introduces us to the scientist as a man, as a father, and as a much more human figure than history tends to portray.

Galileo’s daughter is Suor Maria Celeste. Living in a convent since she was an early teen, her letters to her father bring an amazingly fresh ‘day-in-the-life’ perspective to this amazingly significant time in history. Galileo saved numerous letters from his daughter and Sobel translated them for this book. Suor Maria Celeste’s belongings were not saved when she died (sadly preceding her father by several years) as was the tradition in 17th Century convents. And so we get an interesting one-sided view of Galileo Galilei through the eyes of his daughter.

She’s proud of her father and clearly loves him. She seems to hold her father in the palm of her hand…that magical ability that all daughters have over their fathers since time in memoriam. She’s indirect, but it’s clear that she knows how to push his buttons. She doesn’t take advantage, at least not in any modern sense. But she knows what to say when she needs money (for her convent), or a favor. She loves her father deeply.

“Galileo’s Daughter” is written through several lenses. We witness the biography of Galileo’s life. We witness the history of the Late Renaissance and the Counter Reformation. And we witness a certain amount of daily life as we peer over Galileo’s shoulder and read the sweet and exceedingly genuine letters from a loving daughter to her surprisingly doting father.

Galileo wrote on many scientific topics, but his most famous work is his treatise on “Two Chief Systems of the World”. He supports the worldview that Copernicus identified a generation earlier – that the heavens do not in fact revolve around Earth. Sobel does a nice job of integrating Galileo’s deft handling of the topic that ultimately landed him in front of the Roman Inquisition.

Galileo was an extremely well-know and highly regarded figure in his own lifetime. His trial, and public abjuration of errors and admittance to certain heresies, became a defining moment in a scientific revolution, and would cause a rift between men of science and men of religion that would be felt well into the 20th century. John Paul II referred to the 350-year Galileo affair: “has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith.”

Galileo preferred to validate theory through experimentation, not a common approach of the time. He dropped balls of different sizes off of the Leaning Tower in Pisa to compare the speed of the falling spheres, but Sobel writes that, “Many philosophers of the sixteenth century, unaccustomed to experimental proof, much preferred the wisdom of Aristotle to the antics of Galileo…”

The Dutch had invented a spyglass that Galileo reworked into something more powerful that would ultimately become a telescope. Working with the military at the time, Galileo saw it’s potential and pitched the device to the Doge and entire Venetian Senate. This resulted in a lifetime contract at the University of Padua with a salary to more than account for a life of comfort and ease.

With his new telescope, he became obsessed with the night sky. Among the many graphics in Sobel’s book, are beautifully detailed hand-drawn images of the Moon that Galileo created in 1609.

The next year he came across the discovery that would ultimately set him on a path that would challenge one of the most powerful institutions in the World – the Catholic Church. In January of 1610, Galileo wrote that he saw, “four planets never seen from the beginning of the world right up to our day, “ in orbit around the planet Jupiter. He’d identified previously unknown heavenly bodies. This would lead to his expansion of and (sort of subtle) advocacy of Copernicus’ sun-centric theory. What Copernicus derived theoretically, Galileo substantiated through study and experimentation. What was known at the time as ‘philosophy’, Galileo turned into modern day ‘science’.

He was a man who was exceedingly self-actualized. The last 30 pages of the book evoke a stinging pain as one realizes that an elderly Galileo was acutely aware that he was nearing the end of his days. He was frail, mostly bed-ridden, and sadly, the eyes that had once seen further (and more deeply) than any other person on Earth, had clouded over with age. He wrote a friend, “Bereft of my powers by my great age and even more by my unfortunate blindness and the failure of my memory and other senses, I spend my fruitless days which are so long because of my continuous inactivity and yet so brief compared with all the months and years which have passed; and I am left with no other comfort than the memory of the sweetnesses of former friendships, of which so few are left…”

Suor Maria Celeste “approved of his (Galileo’s) endeavors because she knew the depth of his faith. She accepted Galileo’s conviction that God had dictated the Holy Scriptures to guide men’s spirits but proffered the unraveling of the universe as a challenge to their intelligence.”

Following his trial and while under house arrest, he wrote, “I have two sources of perpetual comfort…first, that in my writings there cannot be found the faintest shadow of irreverence towards the Holy church; and second, the testimony of my own conscience, which only I and God in Heaven thoroughly know. And He knows that (none)…have spoken with more piety or with greater zeal for the Church than I.”

There’s no mistaking any of Galileo’s actions as accidental or disingenuine. I believe, after reading this book that Galileo was at peace accepting a world where science and religion can co-exist, without existing severe doubt.

I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. ( )
1 vote JGolomb | Apr 17, 2012 |
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I learned things about Galileo, and about his time, that I could not have imagined. In the end, the many images and documents were just too hard to handle on the Kindle, and I found a used copy in a local bookstore.

This is a book you should get as paper. ( )
  Lyndatrue | Nov 27, 2013 |
-women, men, life in the rennaissance world ( )
  mykl-s | Aug 28, 2013 |
This books was very interesting. It wasn't a novel, which is hard for me, but for a biography, it was beautifully written and flowed more like a story. Very enlightening and it showed the inspiration of Galileo and some of his contemporaries--and the short-sightedness of others! I think it would be a must-read before you watch Angels & Demons (not that I've watched it--I just saw a documentary last night about it and I felt very intelligent because I knew all about Galileo's life from reading this book). ( )
  jessibelle34 | Jul 14, 2013 |
half way through = can't seem to finish it....will keep plugging along.
  VictoriaJZ | Apr 29, 2013 |
really interesting historical stuff about galileo and about science and physics of the time. i was less interested in the stuff about his daughter, but it does seem always somehow surprising to learn about the private lives of famous intellectuals.

also, it was interesting to read a book all about science (demon in the freezer) then to read a book whose action focuses around religion (the amen corner) to then read a history about a man that worked hard to reconcile the two. ( )
  elisa.saphier | Apr 2, 2013 |
Galileo's story was fascinating. I kind of felt like the letters from his daughter were kind of arbitrarily thrown in. They detracted from the presentation of Galileo's life. If Sobel wanted an excuse to show off the translated letters, I wish she would have focused more on Sour Maria Celeste's convent existence instead of focusing on her father and occasionally throwing in a letter. ( )
  CassieLM | Apr 2, 2013 |
I now own the hard cover edition.(the illustrations are better) ( )
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
From the reviews provided, there is much division about the worth of reading this book. After four attempts to read, I have finally decided to give up. It is about a person and a time in which I have maintained interest and often read about but I just could not sustain and finish this book. ( )
  jamespurcell | Mar 16, 2013 |
So, given the title you'd think this would be about Galileo's daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, who he called "a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me." Perhaps you might have thought that through her eyes--this account is partly based upon and includes several of her letters--you might gain insight into the mind of the man Einstein called "the father of modern physics--indeed of modern science altogether." Given she's described of "exquisite mind" perhaps you thought she might have contributed to his experiments or thinking. If you're expecting any of that, you're going to be disappointed. Really, this is a quick-reading biography of Galileo, and there are several chapters that deal with his life before his daughter enters into the story. And given she was a cloistered nun from her teenage years, hers was not a life of wide scope or interest aside from her being the daughter of a famous father. Her letters, though they show a loving daughter who had no doubts about her father's faith, don't reveal a remarkable intelligence--though that would be hard given the letters in the book are filled with little more than such mundane details as grocery and laundry lists and asking Galileo to fix a broken clock.

What seemed to have animated the book is Sobel's desire to argue there there is no reason to see science and faith as opposed, and to present Galileo as a devout and obedient son of the Catholic Church, particularly as demonstrated through his loving relationship with a supportive, devout daughter dedicated to the religious life. The Catholic Church both revered shouldn't be slurred with condemning Galileo according to Sobel:

"Technically, however, the anti-Copernican Edict of 1616 was issued by the Congregation of the Index, not by the Church. Similarly, in 1633, Galileo was tried and sentenced by the Holy Office of the Inquisition, not by the Church.”

Moreover, Sobel related, the Catholic pontiffs who condoned both rulings didn't "invoke papal infallibility." Alrighty then, that must have consoled Galileo: who was forced to renounce the Copernican theory, found his books banned, was put under house arrest for the rest of his life--after dealing with the Inquisition and the threat of being put under torture or even burned at the stake--as the Astronomer Bruno had been in 1600 by the Inquisition just decades before. The sad thing to me is as Sobel presented it Galileo had done everything he could to follow Church teaching and rulings. He submitted his book on Copernican theory to the Church's censor--told them to change whatever they wanted to, got a license to print it and the Church's imprimatur. But the Pope was convinced that Galileo was mocking him personally in the book, had him prosecuted, and the book appeared in the next Index of Proscribed Books where it would stay for 200 years. But we shouldn't blame the Catholic Church. Nope, it was all just a "tragic mutual misunderstanding." That all reads to me not so much as apologia as satire, yet Sobel does convince me that Galileo truly didn't want a breach with the Church and was a man of faith and science. But for me that just makes more poignant, and more disgraceful, the bullying of an elderly old man by the machinery of the Church.

If the book had a strength though, it was how lucidly it explained the science and Galileo's discoveries--just why he can right be called a father of modern science. And after reading some very dense histories lately, it was something of a relief to read something easier that you could cut through like a heated knife through butter. But I didn't think I got more than a rather superficial gloss on Galileo's life and times. ( )
  LisaMaria_C | Feb 11, 2013 |
This is a sentimental story about Galileo's problems with the church, and his house arrest within a long view of his daughter's convent just up the road. It was emotional for me to visit that place, after having read this book, which was also a best-seller. ( )
  hcubic | Feb 8, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I have had “Galileo’s Daughter” on my shelf for over a year. I have attempted to read it a number of times but I never could get into it. I selected this title based on the publisher’s blurb and was so mislead. The title leads me to believe it is a biography of a daughter who loved her father very much, a person who could help explain Galileo’s problems with the church. I also expected some insight into the life of Galileo, and I did get that to a certain extent, but overall it was a disappointment and I did not finish this book. ( )
  pmarshall | Dec 11, 2012 |
I read this on the recommendation of my friend Fred, and because I'm fascinated by the ructions that went on as the heliocentric view of the solar system gathered momentum (I'd recommend John Banville's Doctor Copernicus and Kepler, and Koestler's Sleepwalkers). I was generally disappointed. The book took me four months to finish, albeit with a break. The slant you get on Galileo is much less about his skills as a savvy dramatist and self-publicist -- see Paul Feyerabend's take -- and much more humble and pious, shown particularly through his relationship with his elder daughter (his two other children remain in the background, in Galileo's thoughts and feelings as well as in this account, if Sobel is right). The book takes a long time to get going: it feels like the first half is scene-setting. What I found most interesting was the account of Galileo's meticulous attempts to avoid precisely the fate that eventually befell him. He got everything signed off in triplicate by the church, having schmoozed everyone up to and including the pope, before he published. But apparently the pope needed a scapegoat, or something to make him look strong and distract attention from other political problems, so Galileo was persecuted and imprisoned (mainly as a guest of indulgent and sympathetic dukes and bishops) despite his best efforts. What annoyed me was that this volte face by the papacy is dealt with very quickly and superficially -- while we get pages and pages of what's growing in the convent garden, or what's happened in Galileo's wine cellar. The central, defining dramatic turn of events on which Galileo's personal story hangs is left underexplained. ( )
  djalchemi | Nov 10, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I am finally admitting defeat.

I wanted to love this book. I wanted to like this book. I wanted to be able to finish this book.

Although it's billed as a "historical memoir," it felt too much like an old-school biography, crammed with facts that the author had researched rather than filled with vibrant characters.

Don't get me wrong: I don't object to biography --- when it's done like Isaacson's biography of Franklin, or Caro's of Robert Moses. But this didn't rise to that level. And to be a "historical memoir" I think it needs to.
  530nm330hz | May 30, 2012 |
While the book was very interesting, I couldn't help but feel the title was somewhat misleading. I thought this was going to be about his daughter, or at the very least it would have some insight into Galileo's personal thoughts or feelings about his daughter, but being that there was no surviving letters of his it relied more on a one sided account and his daughters reactions and responses to him. The book itself was essentially a biography of Galileo but told from a more familial position, I liked the idea of being able to see a different side than most stories tell, it gave you a chance to see that even while he was being questioned for heresy, or had matters of state or other importance to attend, he always took time to send his daughter whatever she or her convent needed. At one point he wrote the sisters a play while in the middle of his own works on motion. Over all I really liked the book but as I said previously, I wish it was more about the daughter.
I give this 3 1/2 stars, and I look forward to reading other books by Dava Sobel ( )
  RockStarNinja | May 2, 2012 |
This is basically a biography of Galileo interspersed with letters from his devoted eldest daughter, a cloistered nun. The life story was of course quite fascinating, from his earliest publications to the trial by the Inquisition late in his life. His daughter’s letters, however, were less illuminating, consisting mostly of household minutiae and requests for money. Her repeated professions of love seemed to border on the passive aggressive, but I suppose that may have just been the translation. It’s too bad her father’s replies were lost; I would have liked to know what sorts of things he said to her. Still, this was a good overview of the life of a great man, and Sobel remains one of my favorite science writers. ( )
1 vote melydia | Apr 21, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
What Dava Sobel does best is connect world-shattering science with the individuals who brought that discipline or discovery to light. Beyond that, she provides the context of the world in which they lived. In writing about Copernicus and John ‘Longitude’ Harrison, she wrote of worlds on the cusp of modernity, one world much closer to the dark Middle Ages, another in the throes of a technological evolution. In “Galileo’s Daughter”, Sobel introduces us to the scientist as a man, as a father, and as a much more human figure than history tends to portray.

Galileo’s daughter is Suor Maria Celeste. Living in a convent since she was an early teen, her letters to her father bring an amazingly fresh ‘day-in-the-life’ perspective to this amazingly significant time in history. Galileo saved numerous letters from his daughter and Sobel translated them for this book. Suor Maria Celeste’s belongings were not saved when she died (sadly preceding her father by several years) as was the tradition in 17th Century convents. And so we get an interesting one-sided view of Galileo Galilei through the eyes of his daughter.

She’s proud of her father and clearly loves him. She seems to hold her father in the palm of her hand…that magical ability that all daughters have over their fathers since time in memoriam. She’s indirect, but it’s clear that she knows how to push his buttons. She doesn’t take advantage, at least not in any modern sense. But she knows what to say when she needs money (for her convent), or a favor. She loves her father deeply.

“Galileo’s Daughter” is written through several lenses. We witness the biography of Galileo’s life. We witness the history of the Late Renaissance and the Counter Reformation. And we witness a certain amount of daily life as we peer over Galileo’s shoulder and read the sweet and exceedingly genuine letters from a loving daughter to her surprisingly doting father.

Galileo wrote on many scientific topics, but his most famous work is his treatise on “Two Chief Systems of the World”. He supports the worldview that Copernicus identified a generation earlier – that the heavens do not in fact revolve around Earth. Sobel does a nice job of integrating Galileo’s deft handling of the topic that ultimately landed him in front of the Roman Inquisition.

Galileo was an extremely well-know and highly regarded figure in his own lifetime. His trial, and public abjuration of errors and admittance to certain heresies, became a defining moment in a scientific revolution, and would cause a rift between men of science and men of religion that would be felt well into the 20th century. John Paul II referred to the 350-year Galileo affair: “has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith.”

Galileo preferred to validate theory through experimentation, not a common approach of the time. He dropped balls of different sizes off of the Leaning Tower in Pisa to compare the speed of the falling spheres, but Sobel writes that, “Many philosophers of the sixteenth century, unaccustomed to experimental proof, much preferred the wisdom of Aristotle to the antics of Galileo…”

The Dutch had invented a spyglass that Galileo reworked into something more powerful that would ultimately become a telescope. Working with the military at the time, Galileo saw it’s potential and pitched the device to the Doge and entire Venetian Senate. This resulted in a lifetime contract at the University of Padua with a salary to more than account for a life of comfort and ease.

With his new telescope, he became obsessed with the night sky. Among the many graphics in Sobel’s book, are beautifully detailed hand-drawn images of the Moon that Galileo created in 1609.

The next year he came across the discovery that would ultimately set him on a path that would challenge one of the most powerful institutions in the World – the Catholic Church. In January of 1610, Galileo wrote that he saw, “four planets never seen from the beginning of the world right up to our day, “ in orbit around the planet Jupiter. He’d identified previously unknown heavenly bodies. This would lead to his expansion of and (sort of subtle) advocacy of Copernicus’ sun-centric theory. What Copernicus derived theoretically, Galileo substantiated through study and experimentation. What was known at the time as ‘philosophy’, Galileo turned into modern day ‘science’.

He was a man who was exceedingly self-actualized. The last 30 pages of the book evoke a stinging pain as one realizes that an elderly Galileo was acutely aware that he was nearing the end of his days. He was frail, mostly bed-ridden, and sadly, the eyes that had once seen further (and more deeply) than any other person on Earth, had clouded over with age. He wrote a friend, “Bereft of my powers by my great age and even more by my unfortunate blindness and the failure of my memory and other senses, I spend my fruitless days which are so long because of my continuous inactivity and yet so brief compared with all the months and years which have passed; and I am left with no other comfort than the memory of the sweetnesses of former friendships, of which so few are left…”

Suor Maria Celeste “approved of his (Galileo’s) endeavors because she knew the depth of his faith. She accepted Galileo’s conviction that God had dictated the Holy Scriptures to guide men’s spirits but proffered the unraveling of the universe as a challenge to their intelligence.”

Following his trial and while under house arrest, he wrote, “I have two sources of perpetual comfort…first, that in my writings there cannot be found the faintest shadow of irreverence towards the Holy church; and second, the testimony of my own conscience, which only I and God in Heaven thoroughly know. And He knows that (none)…have spoken with more piety or with greater zeal for the Church than I.”

There’s no mistaking any of Galileo’s actions as accidental or disingenuine. I believe, after reading this book that Galileo was at peace accepting a world where science and religion can co-exist, without existing severe doubt.

I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. ( )
1 vote JGolomb | Apr 17, 2012 |
Galileo was undergoing a very difficult time with the Catholic Church. The Pope intended to silence Galileo and place him isolation. Galileo was close to be executed as a heretic for stating his beliefs based on his observations of the solar. Galileo was to keep quiet and stay away from the public!. Galileo had placed one of his daughters in a convent-not a very kind decision. Virginia was "illegitimate" and not a candidate for marriage. This proved to a good deal since Virginia became a valuable source of sharing ideas, maintaining ongoing communication, and providing moral support. Virginia was an intelligent and gifted writer. She left a written legacy of letters of her dealing with Galileo. Virginia was able to express her ideas of Galileo's work in a very closed and safe sanctuary. This was a very difficult time for all scientists who contravened the Catholic Church. One scientist did not get burned at the stack for stating the Heliocentric System as the true system. ( )
  phillund | Feb 25, 2012 |
This is a biography of Galileo written by means of his daughter's letters. Very interesting read, very enlightening about life and people: i.e. Galileo's forbidden work was smuggled to the Netherlands by a high ranking clergyman (!) - and a "Mr. Elzevir" published it. Elsevier is still a major publisher today. ( )
  mojacobs | Feb 21, 2012 |
I would have liked a little more information and background in the beginning of the book, instead of wondering until the end about some unexplained details, but I have always had this problem with books and movies. For example, how did Galileo's daughter come to be so literate and so well educated if she was put in a convent at age 13? Why were his bastard daughters ineligible for marriage and sentenced to a life of poverty and hard work when his bastard son enjoyed a life of privilege?
Here and now I would like to propose a new genre: Historical Retrieval. Working with a researcher who writes book-length papers, I know there is not a label that describes the sifting through old documents to bring to life an acurate and factual picture of one life, a few generations, or in this case, two lives with their numerous supporters and adversaries.
I loved the detail, loved the well-organized time line, and the very personal letters, although Galileo's oldest daughter fawns over him, while (dare I suggest it?) his other daughter might be resentful of her lot in life thanks to her father.
I thought it was a pretty good book until the very end when I knew it was a truly great book. As pertinent to our current time and place as it was in the 1600s, we can only hope the lesson will not be lost on us, that history will judge the outcome of the battle between scientific inquiry and the retention of ignorance (often by force) from a few bullies at the expense of good people. The many who came to Galileo's aid to publish his works, even after his being cut off from most human contact, his blindness, and eventual death, indicate there is a desire among mankind to search for the truth, no matter what the obstacles. ( )
  PhyllisHarrison | Dec 29, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I had high hopes for this book but was a bit let down. I don't feel that the author could decide between fiction and nonfiction. There were not enough references for me to feel that it was scholarly enough. Overall just a so-so book. I think that a reader would have to be very interested in Galileo. I would not recommend it for a casual reader. ( )
  goth_marionette | Dec 15, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is my first one by Sobel but now I look forward to more. She does a wonderful job at bringing history to life. There was just so much packed into this book that I took my time with it and savoured each page. I will have to dig out my copy of Longitude now. ( )
  bucketyell | Nov 26, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Dava Sobel, in Galileo's daughter, does an excellent job telling the story of the life of the astronomer Galileo Galilei. Culled from a variety of sources, including the correspondence between Galileo and his daughter, a cloistered nun, Sobel has written a most enjoyable and informative book about Galileo, his life and times. It is a very readable book. Would highly recommend it. ( )
  papyri | Nov 23, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Galileo's Daughter is a biography of Galileo Galilei wonderfully told by Dava Sobel. It is also a story of Galileo's daughter, with whom he corresponded extensively and loved devotedly. The surviving letters from Galileo's daughter frame Sobel's recounting of Galileo's life, from his intellectual triumphs to the ultimately tragic confrontation with the Catholic Church regarding the Copernican view of the universe. Throughout the story, Sobel includes other fascinating details about 16-17th century Italy, such as what life was like for Galileo's daughter living in a convent, and how the plague impacted events. Overall I found this book to be enjoyable and beautifully written. ( )
1 vote ParadigmTree | Nov 8, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Like Winchester, Gleick, Preston, et al., Sobel is a master story teller and has a nack for 1) being able to find a compelling story that both illuminates a time and a person, and 2) translates for the layman the lost or arcane stories of science. ( )
  freudslip | Nov 1, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Hooray! Three cheers for Librarything for offering
  Beezie | Oct 30, 2011 |
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