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on November 1, 2015
I picked this book up after having read and enjoyed Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. While "Galileo's Daughter" is not quite as good, I still enjoyed it as I knew very little about the life of Galileo. Essentially, this is a simple biography of the man, focusing on the years that he produced his famous works, so if you are looking for new material, you won't find that here. Instead, this book gives you a new perspective on an old story. We see Galileo's life through his relationship with his daughter. More specifically, the book is structured around her letters to him, as his were destroyed after she died. It's a lovely book, but it would have been nice to know more about the personal characters of both his daughters, as the book is mainly about him really. I suppose this is because not much is really known. For those who are less than scientifically inclined, it may be hard going, but it's worth it. A fine little book really, and recommended.
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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.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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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.
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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.
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on June 4, 2002
This is an outstanding novel about the legendary Galileo and his life. Not having a passion for Galileo and knowledge limited to what I had learned in high school prior to this reading, I chose this book solely on the basis of the human interest element. I had never heard that he had a daughter much less an enduring record of such a relationship.
What I found most fascinating was the brilliance of Galileo and his inventions. Although he was criticized and later penalized by the Catholic Church he devoted his life to understanding the world and proving his hypotheses through his numerous experiments and inventions. His life is truly amazing as is the background we get from Sobel about Italy and Italian culture at that time.
The relationship that is established between himself and his daughter Suor Maria Celeste is clearly evidenced through the letters that she sends to her father. Unfortunately, there are no surviving letters from Galileo himself. How poignant are her inquiries about her father's work, health and home arrangements. It is clear from these letters that she holds her father in the highest esteem and that he returns this affection for her. Very interesting in itself is her life in the Poor Clare Convent and the trials she must endure in her life up until her untimely death from dysentery at age 34.
I had the opportunity to see the author, Dava Sobel, speak in my community and she is a wonderful speaker. Her sheer determination to write this book was amazing. She learned Italian so that she could translate the letters! If you ever have a chance to see her lecture you won't be disappointed. An outstanding book with a goldmine of information that will inspire you.
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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!!!"
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HALL OF FAMEon June 17, 2003
Dava Sobel's fascinating book, 'Galileo's Daughter', is an historical text, but done in a wonderfully innovative manner. 'Galileo's daughter, born of his long illicit liaison with the beautiful Marina Gamba of Venice, entered the world in the summer heat of a new century, on August 13, 1600--the same year the Dominican friar Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome for insisting, among his many heresies and blasphemies, that the Earth traveled around the sun, instead of remaining motionless at the centre of the universe. In a world that did not yet know its place, Galileo would engage this same cosmic conflict with the Church, treading a dangerous path between the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic and the heavens he revealed through his telescope.'
This daughter, christened Virginia, but taking the name Maria Celeste at the convent to which she was remanded, was an intellectual, well versed in the matters which made her father controversial, and, luckily for historians, a frequent correspondent with many around Galileo.
This book chronicles, with reliance upon Sister Maria Celeste's correspondence as well as a prodigious amount of supporting material, Galileo's struggle to be faithful and obedient both to the call of the Church and the call of scientific truth. In this we see not a militant revolutionary or a man bent on defiance and rebellion, as Galileo is so oft cast, but as a solitary man, an often lonely man, engaged in strenuous effort to be prayerful and concerned for all.
Galileo held many positions of teaching and research in his life. His output of written work was extensive, much of which no longer exists. His daughter likewise produced much, of which only her letters remain. Galileo produced works on mathematics (often with practical, i.e., military, emphasis), astronomy, and philosophy (the dividing line between these fields being rather hard to maintain during the Renaissance). Galileo shared the stage roughly with Copernicus, Brahe, and Kepler; Isaac Newton was born the year of Galileo's death.
Alas, part of Galileo's problem was a political miscalculation. While Pope Urban VIII was a man personally known to him (Galileo had demonstrated the telescope to him some time before his ascension to the lofty heights of Roman hierarchy), and known to be an intellectually interested and astute man, he nonetheless had political and dogmatic concerns (and, perhaps as important, other powerful people surrounding him with such concerns) that he could not ignore.
'When Galileo's book arrived in Rome in the summer of 1632, Urban could take no time to read it. Anonymous advisers judged it for him, however, as an egregious insult. Galileo's enemies in Rome, whose number was legion, saw the Dialogue as a scandalous glorification of Copernicus. And the pope, already loudly accused of flagging Catholic zeal on the battlefronts of Europe, could not allow a new affront to go unpunished.'
Not long after his censure from the papal commission, Galileo lost his eyesight, and, despite being published outside Italy, still chose to remain close to family and Church in Italy. Galileo's work was seen not only as a blight on his intellectual pursuit, but as a personal flaw, and the commission passed judgement 'on his book and his person'. Galileo was sentenced to prison (actually, he could have been burned at the stake, the preferred method for dealing with heretical challengers of the Church's worldview), but this was softened by friends who saw to it his terms of imprisonment were spent in bishopric and ambassadorial accommodations.
'The Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican' was listed on the next Index of Prohibited books, in 1664, where it would remain listed for almost 200 years. Of course, the Vatican made headlines throughout the 1990s by re-opening the case of Galileo and finding 'faults', in fact, that 'a tragic mutual incomprehension has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith'.
Too little too late? Perhaps. This book is a wonderful recast of the standard history on Galileo, seen primarily through the admittedly biased view of his beloved and loving daughter.
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on January 18, 2004
I thought this would be historical fiction, a novel, and when its turn came to read, and I picked it up to figure out what it was, I got really excited about what I was about to learn. Inside the front cover, it reads, "Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of Galileo's daughter, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has written a biography unlike any other of the man Albert Einstein called "the father of modern physics -- indeed of modern science altogher." I noted the diagrams and illustrations of the people, Galileo's equations and inventions.

But what I didn't anticipate was the kind of learning I would be exposed to and how moving the book would be. It turned out to be one of the best books I've ever read, incorporating so many facets in a well-written memoir that challenged and fulfilled.

Of course, I learned quite a bit about the advance of understanding of science and the universe from the story of Galileo's life. His father wanted him to be a physician, but he preferred mathematics and matriculated at the University in Pisa. From there, he took various positions in Italy, eventually ending up as court philosopher and mathematician for the Medici family in Florence. Under their patronage, he was able to maintain the income of a professorship in another city without having to show up to teach. He invented tools to supplement his income, and had three children with a woman he didn't marry, two daughters and a son. The daughters he placed in a convent in Florence, thinking they would be unlikely to marry due to their illegitimacy (apparently, scholars often remained unmarried), and the son he eventually legitimized through a church action. Sobel writes of the progression of Galileo's understanding of the universe after procuring a telescope and modifying it to improve his vision of the sky. He also concentrated heavily on the laws of motion.

Galileo was deeply religious and deeply devoted to the Catholic Church; he was also "connected" through his work as court philosopher for the Medicis in Florence. Though the pope who preceded Urban VIII was not a friend to Galileo and resisted Galileo's advancement of Copernicus's theory of the sun as the center of the universe, rather than the earth, Urban VIII knew Galileo, and the mathematician was able to have an audience with him soon after he ascended to the office. (Though this relationship would have to submit in the end to Urban's declining political position and would not save Galileo from the inquisitors.)

What emerges here is the incredible control over the minds of its subjects the Catholic church enjoyed/enforced in Italy in the 1500s and 1600s. While those Catholics outside Italy were more likely to dispense with papal orders, those within Italy lived in a society structured to control them rigorously. Loyal Galileo, while writing his Dialogue that sought to educate readers on the various theories of the movement of the universe, submitted his work to official inquisitors, the pope's advisers, etc., and willingly changed what they instructed him to out of deference to the church.

The daughter of this book's title is Virginia, whose name became Maria Celeste when she took her vows as a Poor Clare in her convent near Florence. Her younger sister also took vows at the convent, but was not close to her father, and was an unwilling, whining, hypochondriacal nun. In this book, Suor Maria Celeste's 100-plus letters to her father are translated and published for the first time in English, inserted into the narrative in response to events Sobel is reporting in Galileo's life. The letters are sweet and respectful, and show Maria Celeste's dependence on her father for resources as well as her willingness to do for him. She mixed him remedies in the convent's pharmacy, cooked sweets for him and rewrote his manuscripts for him as asked. The two could only visit through a grill at the convent, as Maria Celeste could never leave the grounds, but her letters (his to her did not survive) show a doting, close and mutually rewarding relationship between Galileo and his older daughter.

The book brings to life the daily routines and realities of early 17th century life in Italy, as Sobel makes real what life would be like without clocks, long difficult journeys, onlsaughts of the plague and political intrigues at the Vatican and the local inquisitors'. These tangential explanations, along with the recounting of Galileo's trial in Rome for his DIALOGUE, and his personal and religious sadness over being listed on the church's Index of Prohibited Books, and his daughter's responses and caretaking love of her father, make Galileo a real man, rather than an ancient archetype or a note on a timeline. We see what his questioning intellect cost him and the pleasure and sustenance he derived from his close relationship with his loving and faithful daughter.

The final pages of the book contain such a moving and tender apotheosis of the relationship between Galileo and Suor Maria Celeste. While the book was fabulous, the ending was fulfilling in a wholly unexpected way. I'm grateful for this book, for all I learned from it, and for all I came to understand.
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on September 12, 2002
I consider myself fortunate to have received the book Galileo's Daughter as a gift, becausI don't think that I would have purchased in on my own. Based on the title and cover one maassume that the book is just a biography, which it is. But it is so much more. It documents thsetting in which modern science was born.
Today, for the most part people are comfortable with science and the many ways it make our lives safer and more comfortable. However, during Galileo's lifetime it took great courage to seek the truth through scientific means. The book documents what it meant to live in a society that was controlled completely by the Church. To be an independent thinker meant putting your entire world at risk. This book makes one realize that only in the last few hundred years have people been able to study how nature works. This book illustrates that science can arrive at different conclusions than religion or philosophy about the world around us.
The book inspired me to explore how mankind has arrived at our current way of thinking about uncertainty, opportunity and our place in nature. In other words about the meaning of life and what is our purpose. It is amazing how much we accept as true about nature and the meaning of life just because someone else said that the way it is. This book inspired me to write my book "The Meaning of Life: If life is a Journey You Need Good Directions"
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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.
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