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Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of…

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

by Dava Sobel

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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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An entertaining look at Galileo from a different perspective ( )
  M_Clark | Apr 26, 2016 |
I grew up Protestant. I mean PROTESTANT. I don't think there was a Catholic in my family for 500 years. So, now I'm very curious about anything to do with medieval or renaissance history, which naturally includes Catholic history. This book taught me a lot about those subjects and helped me realized that I'm enthralled with physics, too. I'm also very impressed with Galileo -- of course. ( )
  sydsavvy | Apr 8, 2016 |
Galileo's Daughter is a biography of Galileo that is enriched by transcripts of actual letters he received from his eldest daughter, a nun living in a convent. While the biographical information is interesting and thorough, the letters make Galileo come alive as a real person through his daughters eyes. Reading her words, the legend of Galileo is transformed into a real man who loved his daughter immensely. He was generous, kind, and always willing to do what he could to help others. He was a passionate man who cared deeply about science and discovery. I learned a lot about Galileo and his discoveries by reading this book. I also learned a lot about the power of the Catholic Church, especially in Italy, in the 17th century. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in learning more about Galileo and this time in history. ( )
  Cora-R | Jan 13, 2016 |
One of those special books to be treasured. Wonderful writing telling a story combining the human & the science.
Read in Samoa Jan 2004 ( )
  mbmackay | Nov 29, 2015 |
A fascinating exploration of not only Galileo's struggles to publish and make known his agreement - with theoretical and mathematical evidence - that Copernicus was correct in his belief that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around, and how the Church was determined that Copernicus was wrong as it countered what was spelled out in the Scriptures. Anyone who stayed awake during history and science classes while in school will know a fair bit about Galileo, his writings and his battles with the Catholic church, but I will admit to having no knowledge of his family life before reading Sobel's book. Being able to read the text of his daughter Suor Maria Celeste's letters and the context Sobel provides them in really helped to bring not only Galileo, but also the time period into clear resolution for me. The paternal love and respect Galileo had for his daughter and her intellect, and her unwavering devotion to her father, shines here. Some memoirs come across as rather dry reading for me, because I am usually not interested in the minutia of famous or historical figures. Being able to read about Galileo through his daughter's letters to him was anything but boring, even when she talks about the minutia of her cloistered life. That was very interesting!

Overall, a different approach to a memoir that I felt really works well and presents the details of Galileo's thoughts, beliefs and struggles in a manner that would have been a welcome replacement to any school textbook I had to slog through, back in the days. ( )
  lkernagh | Aug 2, 2015 |
excellent memoir of science vs fanaticism ( )
  Mohamed80 | Jul 11, 2015 |
Excellent narrator (loved this guy ever since the first book I heard him narrate... Piers Anthony's Incarnation series). Just hearing the letters that have been saved over the centuries is enough to make this book a Highly Recommend... this wonderful, smart, witty daughter of Galileo (I won't try to write her name... I couldn't tell how to spell it from listening) writes so poetically and with so many layers of meaning that they seem modern. The information on Galileo was interesting too, such as speculation on flip-flopping back and forth to cater to the "authorities", but it's really the letters that shine in this book. ( )
  marshapetry | May 13, 2015 |
This is a biography of Galileo using quoted at length letters from his daughter as the foundation of the biography. It clarifies the struggle between the church that held a world veiw and interpreted the bible in such a way as it supported the traditional view and resisted science that showed the traditional view was not true. It spends more time on Galileo and his life and discoveries than fully focusing on this controversy though the trial and aftereffects was a major part of the last few decades of his life.

The biographer is careful to show how Galileo did his best to practice his faith in sincerity while also seeking to spread the truth.

The trial of Galileo was a much more civil inquisition than one finds in the writing of Edgar Allen Poe. No torture was used though the author points out that it was authorized.

While Galileo was a faithful Catholic reading about how his daughters lived in a convent and the privitations they lived in and reading about how permission had to be obtained to publish his books I am not terribly impressed with the freedom allowed by the church in his time. This lack was a reason for great friction with the protestent movement which is mentioned in passing several times. ( )
  Chris_El | Mar 19, 2015 |
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 | Sep 21, 2014 |
Well written and highly readable literary biography of Galileo with a focus on the letters his eldest daughter, a cloistered nun, wrote to him for most of her life. Only her letters exist so the story can't be completely told but the fill in is really the meat of the story. This sat on my shelf for a long time as I was convinced it was a novel but I think I liked it better as non-fiction. Worth looking at her other books.
  amyem58 | Jul 15, 2014 |
The title is misleading. This is the story of Galileo's life, and tangentially it's about his daughter. Admittedly the author didn't have a lot of source material as the letters from Galileo to his daughter have all been destroyed, so he is re-piecing from only her letters to him, a one-sided conversation. It was interesting to discover that Galileo had two daughters who were both in a convent and that he kept up a conversation with one through letters his entire life and the other was largely ignored, according to this author. But the letters that were presented were mostly his daughter worrying about her father's health, worrying about his conflicts with the Church, and asking for money for the convent. The author would have been better off dropping the idea of the book after discovering the paucity of information, or turning it into an interesting long form article, but there isn't enough here for a book. ( )
  sbloom42 | May 21, 2014 |
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 |
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