on February 14, 2014
In 1633, the astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was tried and convicted of heresy by the Holy Office of the Inquisition for the crime of having defended the idea that the sun is the centre of the universe around which the earth and planets revolve. Galileo was punished by being placed under house arrest and ordered to publicly affirm his belief in the earth-centred universe. Galileo’s story is the stuff of legend. And yet, there are few references to the support given to Galileo by Suor Maria Celeste, a member of the order of Poor Clares in the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri. Born Virginia Galilei in 1600, she is the eldest of Galileo’s three illegitimate children and lived within the cloistered walls of San Matteo from 1613 until her death in 1634.
In Galileo’s Daughter, Ms Sobel interweaves the stories of father and daughter. Suor Maria Celeste’s letters to Galileo have survived; his to her have not. Ms Sobel writes that his letters were probably destroyed by the Convent after her death:
‘In this fashion, the correspondence between father and daughter was long ago reduced to a monologue.’
The lives of father and daughter could not be in more stark contrast: she lived within the confines of a convent; much of his life was lived very publicly through his teaching, research and invention. We know about Galileo’s public life, but in this book we learn of domestic concerns, of his daughter’s preparation of pills and potions for his illness, of her mending and sewing for him and of preparing food for him. We learn as well that Galileo was a generous benefactor of the Convent, and that Suor Maria Celeste served as an apothecary and was sought out by the abbesses to write important letters.
Although the title of the book is ’Galileo’s Daughter’ and the focus is on Suor Maria Celeste, it is Galileo’s life that occupies centre stage. Suor Maria Celeste’s letters provide another and different insight into Galileo’s life as well as raising quite a few questions about the treatment of daughters (especially illegitimate daughters in the 17th century). I admit that my primary focus was on Galileo, but I found myself liking Suor Maria Celeste and wanting to know more about her. This book brings them both to life.
‘Thus, to imagine an infinite universe was merely to grant almighty God his proper due.’
I listened to the this book on tape.
It has been one of the more enjoyable literary experiences I have had recently. The writing style is excellent. The narration done masterfully with the narrator distinctively creating the voices and personalities of the different characters. I found the experience riviting and entertaining.
As regards the book itself, I was familiar with the story of Galileo but this brought it to life and personalized it so that I now view this history with a much more passionate eye.
The brilliance of Galileo's intellect and the radical information that he brought into the darkness of his age cannot be underestimated. As viewed through the culture of our day, I don't believe we can appreciate the role of one who challenges the prevailing wisdom of the current age and shakes it to its core. Part of Galileo's legacy is that we have developed in a more scientific community and change is more or less expected and we are by and large more prepared to receive such change as a matter of course. Not all of us of course, but it is a part of our culture and expectations to a degree unheard of in the world, especially as it emerged from the Dark Ages.
I found that important to keep in mind as I absorbed the information of this book recounting the treatment of Galileo by the Catholic Church.
The depth of this treatment and the intransigence of religious thought is such that the most Brilliant mind of the 17th Century who evinced a strong devotion to his Church and faith to a degree that seems almost surreal given their treatment of him, did not have his "Heretical" body buried with the dignity it deserved until the 18th century, did not have his "Heretical" book removed from the Church's banned list until the 19th century and did not have an official expression of any remorse or regret from the instituation of the Roman Catholic Church until the end of the 20th century in the form of a lukewarm and self-justifying statement offered by Pope John-Paul II on the 350th anniversary of Galileo's death.
I found myself struggling greatly as I digested the words of Galileo, his daughter and various Church officials toward the end of the book as the travesty of Galileo's trial and subsequent imprisonment played out. You must understand, of course, the context of the days and grant a certain amount of deference. Even with that, the Church erred greatly in their judgement, and handling of this matter and did not just a person, but the entire scientific community extant and yet to come an "astronomical" dis-service of cosmic proportions. Small wonder that scientific greatness ceased to emerge in Italy for so many years following and that the protestant community outside the stifling ignorance and arrogance of the Catholic Church became a progenitor of scientific progress. (This is not to grant those a pass as that ignorance and arrogance is well represented currently in the form of "Young Earth" Creationists who carry that legacy well into our current days, to name just one example.)
As one trained in hermenuetics and apologetics and respectful of religious importance, I was amazed to hear the words of Galileo as regards the interpretation of Scripture. He was not only a more intelligent and disciplined thinker in the realm of science, he was a better Biblical Expositor. He recognized clearly that there was no conflict between creation and Scripture. Where perceived conflict existed, it existed because of faulty interpretation of scientific data AND/OR faulty interpretation of Scripture. The Scriptures were not written in a scientific age and never intended to deliver scientific teaching in a literal sense. The key to enlightenment lay in recognizing truth for what it was from either realm and reconciling the two and abandoning a literal hermanuetic where it could not be supported. Sadly, this lesson remains unlearned by many and the resultant split between the scientific community and communities of faith remains unnecessarily in existence.
It is one thing for the Church to have erred in the introduction of new thought and truth coming out of the Dark Ages. It is sadly another, for ignorance to be embraced and cherished when the light of truth shines brightly for any who would open their eyes and engage in the challenge of understanding and then reconciling the two.
I digress, but the book ignited my little explosion so I will let it stand.
Galileo emerges from this book in oh so human form. His brilliance, his pride and arrogance (probably justified more in him than most men but there none-the-less), and his tender relationship with his daughter, come out of this work in a superior manner. He becomes human and transends the mythological proportions he has achieved in History and Science.
Well worth the time to read or listen. An outstanding book!
on July 7, 2004
From the title of this book, I naturally expected it to be a biography of Galileo's daughter, which it is not exactly. I was a bit disappointed to begin with, as the first hundred pages or so are Galileo's early biography. Once his daughter, Virginia (later Suor Marie Celeste) came into the picture, the story became much more interesting.
Virginia was one of Galileo's three illegitimate children by the mistress of his early years, Marina Gamba. She eventually married, with Galileo's blessings, and he never lost interest in his children. Due to their illegitimacy which he felt would eliminate any chance of a decent marriage, Galileo had his two daughters entered into a convent at a very early age. The both became nuns at the convent of San Matteo on turning sixteen, Virginia taking the name Suor Marie Celeste and Livia that of Suor Arcangela. The son, Vincenzio, lived with Galileo in his late teens and eventually (after an unpromising start) became a good son to him.
This book recounts Galileo's personal and private life, using letters from Marie Celeste to give color to what would otherwise be a black and white, straight forward biography. Their shared love is beautiful to see in her letters--his to her having been lost--and the bits and pieces of every day life that she treats the reader to are thoroughly enjoyable.
This is a very detailed and readable history of Galileo, and gave me a much greater understanding of the man, his work and his difficulty with the Church. The conflict he felt between himself and his discoveries comes through very clearly and poignantly in his own words through his other letters. Her faith in him, and in the fact that he was not being heretical, is very apparent. It was interesting to me to see how differently Sobel portrays Galileo's fight was the Church--if her sources are to be believed (and I see no reason to disbelieve) it was not at all what history textbooks would have us believe.
As a history major and fanatic, I truly enjoyed reading this book. The alternate perspective of Galileo was refreshing and real--and made sense of a lot that had previously seemed murky to me about him and the Church. The addition of Marie Celeste's letters gave this book personality and took Galileo from a science god to a human being. My only regret is how few letters are in this book, and that the title is a bit misleading. Despite that, if you have any interest in Galileo, this is a must-read!
This six part, 33 chapter book, by Dava Sobel, has two themes running through it:
Theme #1: Decribes thoroughly the life and times of Galileo Galilei (1564 to 1642).
Theme #2: Describes the life of Galileo's daughter (1600 to 1634) through some of the actual letters she wrote to her father.
This is first and foremost a solid, easy to read biography of Galileo. His life is traced from him first entering a monastery before deciding to lead a life of scientific inquiry and discovery. Actual letters or parts of letters (translated from the original Latin, French, or Italian by various experts) by Galileo and others are included in the main narrative. Throughout, we are told of his numerous inventions and discoveries. Perhaps the most sensational is that his telescopes allowed him to reveal a new reality in the heavens and to reinforce the Copernican argument that the Earth moves around the Sun. For this belief, he was brought before the Holy Inquisition, accused of heresy, and forced eventually to spend his last years under house arrest. All the translated papers pertaining to these inquisition days are included and make for fascinating reading.
My favorite Inquisition story is with respect to the June 1633 renunciation or "confession" document (reproduced in this book) Galileo was to speak out aloud. The main point of this document is that the Earth does not move around the Sun and that the Earth does not move at all. After reading it aloud, it is said that he muttered under his breath "Eppur si muove" (translation: "But it does move.")
One of Galileo's daughters born "Virginia" and later appropriately named "Sister Maria Celeste," had the intelligence and sensibility of her father. As indicated by her letters, her loving support, which Galileo repaid in kind, proved to be her father's greatest source of strength through his most productive but tumultuous years. Sobel herself translated these letters from the original Italian. They are expertly woven into the main narrative adding an emotional element to this biography.
This book contains almost twenty-five complete letters and numerous large and small fragments from other letters by Sister Celeste. All letters she wrote begin with a statement showing love and respect for her father. Example: "Most Illustrious Lord Father." The first complete letter is dated May 10, 1623 and the last complete letter is dated December 10, 1633. Those letters Galileo wrote to his daughter have not survived.
Almost 75 illustrations are found throughout this book. They add (besides the actual letters of Galileo's daughter) yet another dimension to the narrative. Two of my favorite pictures are entitled "Moon drawings by Galileo in 1609" and "Sunspot drawings by Galileo."
Another intriguing aspect of this book is a chronology after the main narrative ends entitled "In Galileo's Time." This is not just a timeline of important events that occurred during Galileo's life but includes all significant events (especially scientific ones) between 1543 to 1999 inclusive. For example, what happened in 1687? According to this chronology, "Newton's laws of motion and universal gravitation are published in his [book] 'Principia.'" What happened in 1989? Answer: "[NASA] launches [the] 'Galileo' spacecraft [or space probe] to study the moons of Jupiter at close range."
Where did the author obtain all the fascinating information needed to write such an intriguing book? Answer: from the over 130 references found in the bibliography.
I noticed in the book's "Appreciation" section that the author gives thanks to many people. (Dr.) Frank Drake, who helped with the celestrial mechanics found in this book, caught my eye. She co-authored with him the excellent book "Is Anyone Out There?: The Scientific Search for Extraterrestral Intelligence" (paperback, 1994).
Finally, my only minor complaint is with the book's title. As mentioned above, there are two interconnected themes running through this book. Thus, I think a more appropriate title might have been "Galileo and his Daughter."
In conclusion, this book is a thorough biography of Galileo that includes some translated letters from one of his daugters. It is truly, as the book's subtitle states, "A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love!!!"
on June 29, 2004
Dava Sorbel (in case you wondered, it's s a woman) has written a thoroughly entertaining and gripping account of Galileo Galilei's life from an unusual angle. This is based on the surviving letters from his eldest child to the astronomer and scientist; from her there are 124 extant letters, but not one of his remains. (However, there are numerous of his other writings and correspondence that the author also draws upon, both directly, and indirectly). Even from the letters alone, it quickly becomes apparent that the reader needs to suspend ideas of parenthood and morality as we would know them. This is seventeenth century Italy, and completely different rules apply.
Suor (or Sister) Maria Celeste took orders in the convent of St Clare at the age of 13, and the tone of her letters is of sheer reverence of her father, and there is a joy in her performing menial task for him, her brother and others in the family. The vow of poverty that Virginia (her name was changed upon entering the convent) took was real, and sometimes there is more than a hint of begging in her letters to Galileo. She also at times was given the responsibility of sending begging letters to possible patrons on behalf of the convent.
Intricate details of everyday life are given throughout; the account of the plague in central Italy in 1630 is particularly good. The continual return to such matters follows the ebb and flow of the letters. Often, letters were sent with some items that had been prepared, and there are requests to send a basket back, or some similar items. Details of convent life are an important backdrop to the writings of Galileo, and Suor Maria Celeste understood both (she helped make fair copy of some of her father's writings prior to publication).
Sorbel also takes a stance on the trial of Galileo in 1633, indicating that it is so unlikely as to be impossible that the man uttered "Yet it does move" or something similar at the end of his trial. The trial not only gave Galileo anguish, but also his daughter. In spite of everything, Galileo considered himself to be a good catholic. In the book that was to be placed on the banned list by the papal authorities, Galileo attempted to divert criticism by having a hypothetic dialogue between exponents of a geo-centric world order, and those of a sun-centred system. "Dialogue on the Two Chief World System: Ptolomaic and Copernican" was to remain on the Papal list of Prohibited Books until 1835!
Galileo was concerned about more than just a sun-centred universe; telescopes, the moon of Jupiter, sunspots, tidal flows and the motion of pendulums are just some of the matters that he wrote about. These ideas are presented in clarity, sometimes exposing what now seems the crazy ideas of his contemporaries. (Consider that one cardinal could see the image of Jupiter's moons using a telescope, but believed that the telescope itself had introduced the image. Another theory was introduced in order to retain the Aristotelian view that everything outside the orbit of the moon in a geocentric universe is unchanging.)
I hope that this well researched and historically accurate book inspires readers to explore other recent books from the History of Science. Be warned, however; not all will meet the excellent standard of this volume. It excels for the background material that has been drawn upon, and for the compelling nature of the read.
on March 22, 2004
Some biographers, through talent and the intelligent use of a pen, can make their subject's life a fascinating and interesting tale. Unfortunately, Sobel does not have that talent, and it shows. She writes an extremely long, indifferent encyclopedia article that does little to stimulate the mind or stir the soul, spending too much time weaving intricate, useless details into the story. For example, Sobel spends almost an entire page detailing Suor Maria Celeste's (Galileo's Daughter) handwriting, and throws a new, irrelevant name into every paragraph while doing little to personalize the relevant names. Sobel takes the fascination and excitement in Galileo's tale and presents it in the most boring, mattter-of-fact way possible. I was forced to read this excrutiatingly dull biography for my English 102 class; otherwise, I would not have finished it. All I really have to say is: I'm sorry Ms. Sobel, because your tale didn't turn out as well as you probably wanted it to, and I'm sorry Galileo, that your life has been manipulated into such a sorry novel.
on March 19, 2004
Despite the title, the book is not about Galileo's daughter. While her correspondence with her father figures prominently throughout the book and details of her life factor into the story, the book is largely a biography of her father, the preeminent Renaissance physicist and astronomer, Italian Galileo Galillei.
Dava Sobel manages to capture her subject from a more intimate prospective than many biographers by using correspondence, mainly that from his daughter Virginia (later Sister Maria Celeste) to illuminate the more personal aspects of his life. None of the great man's own letters to his daughter remain--the author opines this was because the sister was not allowed to possess anything and such letters might therefore have been destroyed or removed to another location--so his replies are unknown except through references made to them by the sister.
The details of Galileo's life as a youth and as a scientist were known to me to some limited degree through other reading and by means of a play based on his life that I attended at the Children's Theater here in Minneapolis, but the author's book more clearly develops the scientist's life as a family man, devout Catholic, and confidant of the world's contemporary intelligentsia.
For me the most interesting aspect of Galileo's story is still the ordeal he was subjected to as a result of his astronomical observations and beliefs. The author makes it much more obvious that this was no insignificant event in the scientist's life, using Sister Maria Celeste's letters to illuminate the precariousness of the scientist's political situtation and health.
She also makes it clearer that much of the issue was inspired by political events outside of the country that impacted the Roman Catholic Church and its hierarchy, which is something of which I had been unaware. Having undergone an earlier losing confrontation with the inquisition, the scientist had actually discussed his proposed scientific play with the Pope and had submitted the manuscript to not one but two official scrutinies. He had made the changes they required and gone to press, when enemies within the religious and academic communities, both in Italy and abroad, conspired to ruin him by bringing charges of heresy against him.
At this time, Pope Urban VIII was involved in an expensive war with various political entities in Europe over the control of the Holy Roman Empire and over the issue of Protestantism in the contended territory. His capacity to "protect the faith" was being called into question by the discontented in Italy who were being pressed to finance the furtherance of the war, and he needed to prove to them that he could in fact stand firm on religious questions. Galileo managed to get in the way, just at that point in history. Urban, who was himself scientifically inclined and fairly open minded, was also an astute politician caught between a rock and a hard place. Ultimately he had to have known that what was being discovered by the world's scientists would be proven fact in the end and could not be indefinitely supressed. He was probably aware as well that the heresy of which Galileo's work was accused was more of a literary technicality than anything. But he also had to protect his reputation and that of the church in order to maintain its integrity as an institution during a difficult time.
To his credit and that of his peers, up until Urban's time much of science had been speculation and philosophy and "truth" and "reality" were defined by the reputation and status of the proponent of the theory and not by objective data. Equipment used to quantify scientific proposals was just only beginning to be invented during Urban and Galileo's lifetimes and was very new, untested, and not widely understood. The telescope, microscope, thermometer, and barometer were all devised at this time. Furthermore, many charlatans had used mechanical devices to defraud and delude their victims. That one might look through a telescope like Galileo's and see exotic and unexpected things that might well prove to be untrue, seemed entirely logical given the status of science and culture at the time.
An interesting book on an interesting topic and an interesting time in history.
on February 26, 2004
I give this book five stars, because it is absolutely essential reading for anyone wanting a schoalrly, balanced account of "the Galileo incident" at the center of modern science, and modern supposed conflicts between science and religion.
Dava Sobel presents Galileo Galilei in a manner too few historians have: as a man of his times; deepy inquisitive, but, more importantly, devoutly Catholic. Galileo did not see a dichotomy between science and true religion (which he felt to be Catholic Christianity). Rather, in his scientific study of the cosmos he saw a reflection of man's sojourn to his ultimate destiny, Heaven.
A biography of Galileo, this book is also an autobiography of his oldest daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, a Poor Clare Nun. Dava's translations of her letters are the only ones I know of to have been made into English.
Even so, this book is much, much more than a translation of Sister Maria's letters. I say this in case any prospective male readers feel that this book may be a chronicle of feminist manifestos. It isn't.
This book, perhaps most importantly, is the most readable account of Galileo's history, and his scientific theories, for the general reader that I have ever read.
It's reading is a must for the serious student of science, history, and religion. Be prepared to compare what you think you know, with what actually was, of the Renaissance and the origins of modern science.
on February 22, 2004
We read this book as the monthly selection in our bookclub. The book is very interesting, but definitely NOT a FAST read. Several people in our bookclub commented that they felt the book was too long, and not well-edited. Some people had read Longitude, by the same author, and said that it was a better book. Nevertheless, when we discussed what we would have taken out, every person had a different opinion. For each of the things that one person in the group didn't care for, another person in the group enjoyed. So I think it was fine.
Some people were disappointed that the book turned out to be more about Galileo than his daughter. But for me, I enjoyed that it was. I felt the last third of the book was the best. I learned a LOT from reading this book. Sobel brings the characters to life. I feel like I know Pope Urban now as a human being. I also know Galileo and his daughter both as human beings, just as if I had met all of these people in my current life. Some people in our group were not interested in the science presented in the book, but really enjoyed reading about all the herbal and plant remedies used during the Middle Ages. The herbal things didn't interest me, but I LOVED the science discussions presented in the book.
No matter WHAT your interest, this book is a slow, but very worthwhile read. It stimulated me to want to read much more on many of the subjects that were only touched on in the book.
on February 16, 2004
In her intimately drawn book, "Galileo's Daughter," Dava Sobel brings us the story of Galileo the Scientist, interwoven with letters from his daughter, which allow us to see Galileo the devout Catholic, and kindly father, as well.
The letters that his daughter, Suor Maria Celeste, wrote to her father over the course of her life serve as the backdrop and force behind Galileo's life and of Sobel's book. Sobel has carefully translated these letters and brought to light not only the life of Galileo, but the daily life details of a seventeenth century Italian nun. Suor Maria writes, for example, "Here are some cakes I made a few days ago, hoping to give them to you when you came...I am still not well...but by now I am so accustomed to poor health that I hardly think about it, seeing how it pleases the Lord to keep testing me always with some little pain or other" (121).
In over 124 letters, we see that Suor Maria Celeste and the nuns of San Matteo are a big part of Galileo's life. Writes Sobel, "Thus, all the while Galileo was inventing modern physics...and defending his bold theories...he was also buying thread for Suor Luisa, choosing organ music for Mother Achillea...and supplying his homegrown citrus fruits, wine, and rosemary leaves for the kitchen and apothecary of San Matteo" (119). In this way we see a Galileo who is deeply involved in the cloistered life of his daughter while at the same time making significant scientific contributions to the world at large.
It is at times a plodding discourse due to the significant amount of historical detail she embeds in virtually every page but it is also a delight to have such a plethora of information in one book.
Sobel has crafted a wonderful narrative, meticulously researched and skillfully presented. Through her portrayal of Galileo, the reader is taken to that point in time when the schism between science and religion first emerged.