Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love, by Dava Sobel
Galileo’s Daughter is a joint biography of Galileo and Suor Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun and the closest to him of his three children. Sobel gracefully recalls Galileo’s successes as a scientist and inventor; among them, the telescope, which aided him in support of the argument that the Earth moves around the Sun and is not, in fact, the center of the universe. Of course, she has no choice but to recall as well that for this conviction, Galileo was interrogated by the Holy Office of the Inquisition and placed under house arrest for heresy despite the strength of his own religious beliefs. What’s particularly interesting about her telling of these events, which so greatly informed popular constructs of science and faith as opposing and mutually exclusive practices, is that the surviving letters that Galileo received from his daughter throughout the years are neatly incorporated throughout the book and shine light on a relationship that was central to both Galileo and his daughter, lending the tale personal and human appeal.
After reading Heloise and Abelard last spring, I developed somewhat of an interest in convents and the lives of nuns, which was nice to re-visit through the letters of Suor Maria Celeste. She wrote to her father frequently, sparing no detail of her daily life and activity. Unfortunately, without the same sort of analysis that was present in Heloise and Abelard, this became a bit tiresome. I was hoping their correspondence would more directly relate to the impact and implications of the astronomical discoveries that Galileo was making, but most of Suor Maria Celeste’s contributions to their dialogue were about purely domestic matters. She worried deeply about her father due to his chronic illnesses and this worry only increased, as one might imagine, with the political and religious tensions that lead to his interrogation by the Holy Office. She seemed to dote on him in a very sweet way that spoke to the depth of her love for him, but–and this is no fault of Sobel’s–it was strange to read her letters without also being able to read his letters to her (his were burned when they were found in her convent). It was clear that he loved and respected her for her intelligence and her character, yet the relationship could only appear painfully one-sided given the presentation.
What Sobel did well, I thought, was remind the reader of just how mind-blowing Galileo’s observations were at the time. It is difficult to imagine how unnerving it must have been, to have visual confirmation that our place in the universe was so drastically different from what had been assumed. Galileo’s work was completely disruptive of all existing patterns of thought and understanding, be they religious, political, or just every-day. Not only that, but these discoveries were taking place during a time of authoritative turnover in both politics and religion (which often amounted to the same) as well as the growing horror of a quickly-spreading plague. This context is crucial to understanding how and why Galileo came to be seen as THE figure at the center of a growing conceptual divide between science and faith, and Sobel connects those dots skillfully.
In the end, I got what I wanted from this book, which was only to reacquaint myself with some general history of science. I used to read a lot of pop-science books, which I’ve been thinking I might get back into, but it’s a subject (um, a super broad one, I realize) that I haven’t much touched since high school. I also got to learn a bit more about what it might have been like to live as a nun in Galileo’s time (1564-1642) and that was nice. But it wasn’t much more than that. It was a recap of things I’ve learned and forgotten, but nothing that struck me as particularly new and exciting. And while I was interested in the relationship between Galileo and Suor Maria Celeste, I didn’t feel that their correspondence actually gave me a real sense of either’s personality. It also sometimes felt like an unnecessary detour from the more compelling story of Galileo’s discoveries and their ramifications. However, I would be willing to read Sobel again. In fact, her book Longitude sounds pretty fascinating. I wouldn’t rush out to read this one if you don’t have a particular interest, is all.