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Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love

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Dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishment of a mythic figure whose seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion.

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 altogether." Galileo's Daughter also presents a stunning portrait of a person hitherto lost to history, described by her father as "a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me."

The son of a musician, Galileo Gahlei (1564-1642) tried at first to enter a monastery before engaging the skills that made him the foremost scientist of his day. Though he never left Italy, his inventions and discoveries were heralded around the world. Most sensationally, his telescopes allowed him to reveal a new reality in the heavens and to reinforce the astounding argument that the Earth moves around the Sun. For this belief, he was brought before the Holy Office of the Inquisition, accused of heresy, and forced to spend his last years under house arrest.

Of Galileo's three illegitimate children, the eldest best mirrored his own brilliance, industry, and sensibility, and by virtue of these qualities became his confidante. Born Virginia in 1600, she was thirteen when Galileo placed her in a convent near him in Florence, where she took the most appropriate name of Suor Maria Celeste. Her loving support, which Galileo repaid in kind, proved to be her father's greatest source of strength throughout his most productive and tumultuous years. Her presence, through letters which Sobel has translated from their original Italian and masterfully woven into the narrative, graces her father's life now as it did then.

Galileo's Daughter dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishment of a mythic figure whose seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion. Moving between Galileo's grand public life and Maria Celeste's sequestered world, Sobel illuminates the Florence of the Medicis and the papal court in Rome during the pivotal era when humanity's perception of its place in the cosmos was being overturned. In that same time, while the bubonic plague wreaked its terrible devastation and the Thirty Years' War tipped fortunes across Europe, one man sought to reconcile the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic with the heavens he revealed through his telescope.

With all the human drama and scientific adventure that distinguished Longitude, Galileo's Daughter is an unforgettable story.

420 pages, Paperback

First published October 1, 1999

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About the author

Dava Sobel

52 books713 followers
Dava Sobel is an accomplished writer of popular expositions of scientific topics. A 1964 graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, Ms. Sobel attended Antioch College and the City College of New York before receiving her bachelor of arts degree from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1969. She holds honorary doctor of letters degrees from the University of Bath, in England, and Middlebury College, Vermont, both awarded in 2002.

In her four decades as a science journalist she has written for many magazines, including Audubon, Discover, Life and The New Yorker, served as a contributing editor to Harvard Magazine and Omni, and co-authored five books, including Is Anyone Out There? with astronomer Frank Drake. Her most well known work is Longitude.

The asteroid 30935 Davasobel is named for her.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,721 reviews
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,295 reviews120k followers
April 1, 2021
Dava Sobel - image from Physics World

Well, it’s really about Galileo. The daughter thing is a hook, and I found that to be the weakest part of the book. Galileo, in this historical memoir, has had three children by a woman not his wife. The daughters are thus unmarriageable, and are sent to a convent. The daughter of the title sends him letters, usually including requests for money. This book provides considerable detail about the travails the great scientist endured in his quest to explain the world. The Catholic Church is the pre-eminent political institution of its time, and thus, Galileo must deal with the reality he inhabits, trying to find ways around the silliness of revealed truth. It is entertaining and interesting. Not a must read, and feel free to skip the letters from his daughter, but a worthwhile read nonetheless.

Links to Sobel’s personal and FB pages
Profile Image for Bionic Jean.
1,227 reviews1,061 followers
May 30, 2023
Einstein said of Galileo that he was "the father of modern physics - of modern science altogether". We think of him as the father of astronomy. But how much do we really know about his life? The answer, surprisingly, is quite a lot. This book, entitled Galileo's Daughter is a dual biography, both of Galileo and of his eldest daughter, a cloistered nun of the Poor Clares. It is also in part a fascinating chronicle of a 17th Century clash between Science and Catholic doctrine; arguably the most historically significant and intense battle between religious belief and scientific knowledge. Sobel's account is compiled in the main from the 120 letters (translated from the Italian) written by Suor Maria Celeste, which she weaves into her narrative. Sadly none of Galileo's letters still survive, although it is clear that they were in contact daily, and that Maria was his most trusted confidante.

Galileo had 3 illegitimate children to care for. Maria (formerly Virginia) was his eldest daughter, and was placed in the convent at the age of 13. The life there was almost unbelievably gruelling to modern sensibilities, but the letters convey how privileged and honoured she felt to be serving in this capacity. The next daughter - also placed in the convent - was a depressive, and Maria attempted in her life to combine her duties as a nun with caring for both of them. She also constantly tried to make peace between her father and her brother. There are numerous details of a simple dish she would have cooked and sent along in a basket, or a garment she would have painstakingly sewn, despite her life of extreme poverty and chronic ill-health.

The convent was in bad repair, and the nuns did not have any money. Galileo frequently helped out financially, but the nuns still had to suffer insufficient food, heating or anything approaching sanitation. Maria made light of her troubles, and Galileo was dependent on her loyalty, support and strength, saying that she had an "exquisite mind". Although his part of the conversation is missing, it can be inferred, and they were clearly devoted to one another.

Galileo was born in 1564, and pursued his dream of studying mathematics and philosophy, despite his parents' wishes that he become a doctor. He taught at the universities of Pisa and Padua, but this position seemed to confer little respect, because of the subjects he taught. However his reputation grew with his startlingly original investigations and discoveries. Eventually he secured the patronage of the Medici family. Among other things he managed to augment the power of the telescopic lens, thus enabling him to study the moon and stars, and discovered the first four of Jupiter's moons. There were further controversial scientific discoveries when he discovered sunspots. He challenged Aristotelian physics, and this angered his colleagues.

But the main tragedy of his life stems from the time when Galileo published his "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems". He had thought for a long time that Copernicus was correct in postulating that the Earth revolves around the sun, and with Galileo's mathematical skills and the scientific instruments he had invented, he was able to establish proof. Maria's letters show the wavering stages of approval and disapproval of Galileo's conclusions by the Catholic Church. At first his theories were welcomed, then seen as a challenge to the Catholic faith; the greatest threat since Martin Luther. Eventually the reigning Pope (Urban VIII) - a former friend and supporter - deemed that Galileo had to undergo a Trial by the Inquisition in 1633.

By now Galileo was in very poor health. He was charged that his work was heresy; that the motions of the heavens were for the Holy Fathers of the Church to rule on, not him. Galileo insisted throughout his gruelling trial (possibly involving torture) that he was a good Catholic, that his faith was true. Eventually he was released under a form of house arrest, but by now he was impoverished and never really recovered from the experience. The descriptions of Galileo's ordeal is set against a backdrop of bubonic plague throughout Europe, and the 30 years' war. Throughout Maria would care for him, offering constant support and prayers, cleaning and mending his clothes, preparing titbits, tonics and medicines to cheer him. She transcribed all his notes and never doubted his conclusions or faith. She died at 34 of dysentry, only months after he had sold his beloved house in Tuscany to move closer to the convent when his sentence had been commuted to house imprisonment.

I was surprised that I enjoyed this book as much as I did. The two main characters are vividly brought to life through the description of events and the details, which are sometimes quite homely, running through the correspondence. Galileo's inventions are fascinating to read about; they are described chronologically as they occur. Both Galileo's brilliant mind and his conscience shine through this work. His struggles to reconcile his scientific findings with his Catholic beliefs are particularly well drawn and poignant, although the descriptions of his trial make for harrowing reading. Throughout there is the devotion of his daughter, who read and commented on his work, sometimes adding thoughts of her own. She was his closest ally.

The subheading of this book is "A Drama of Science, Faith and Love". It is a perfect description of the book, which itself is a fascinating read.
Profile Image for Brad.
201 reviews8 followers
April 24, 2008
What a spectacular book! My advice to you is to violently discard the grossly inferior book you are currently wasting your time with for this one instead. Toss it aside like the trash it is. This is a far better substitute. Do yourself some good instead.

The mythology of Galileo, as truly the first modern scientist, is, of course, both revered and legendary. His condemnation by the Church, his cannon-balls from Pisa Tower and his ingenious improvements on the telescope--well known stories, to be sure--are re-told here with fresh insight and clarity. Importantly, though, is that I felt that one can not help but be struck by the contemporary relevance in these stories. The truths that science reveals and the unwillingness that a particular ideology or political group exhibits towards accepting those truths are just as damaging today as they were 400 years ago. Consider Galileo’s cannon-balls: the thinking at the time was that the speed of an object in free-fall was proportional to its weight. Galileo reasoned that it was intuitively wrong to suggest that, from a height of 100 feet, a 100 pound ball would hit the ground, while a 1 pound ball, dropped at the same time, would have only traveled one foot. When he tried the experiment, the discrepancy between the two weights was merely a few inches. As I read of how some of Galileo’s contemporaries’ refused to accept these discoveries, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the animosity displayed by some toward climate change. Just as some are willing to disregard the overwhelming support of whole hypothesis because of a few findings to the contrary, so too were Galileo critics willing to disregard his whole hypothesis because of those two inches. His response was that they ignored the ninety foot discrepancy the old dogma suggested, to focus instead on his two inches. Yet today so many are comfortable ignoring the facts of climate change, focusing instead on those two inches of debate. And just as Galileo’s two inch discrepancy was due to air resistance, so too will science address all the complex facets inherent in the vigorous and healthy debate of climate change. If it is evolution, stem cell therapies, projected water shortages or the impending energy crisis, so many today are willing to disregard science when it interferes with their comfort. We have not only forgotten Galileo, we have reduced him to a myth, a story only. Someone who played with a telescope instead of someone who changed the world.

But, in addition to all this, perhaps even above all of this, the book is a beautiful story of the love between a father and his daughter. Through the surviving correspondence of Galileo’s daughter, a bright yet reclusive nun, we see the esteemed scientist in a whole new way. As a person, a father, rather than an obscure legend. Moving and simple and powerful. All told, this was beautifully done.
Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 11 books332 followers
December 29, 2019
After 150 pages I decided if this book didn’t end by smashing the patriarchy, I didn’t want to read anymore. And since it would end in 1642, I gave up. Say what you will about ‘the times,’ it’s impossible to buy the idea that a well-off, well-educated, intelligent and self-respecting public figure can’t know he’s participating in screwing over half of humanity.

Back in the days of Galileo, the author tells us, it was atypical for (male) academics to marry. And so it was with Galileo and his contemporaries, who didn’t marry but nevertheless enjoyed living in conjugal union with someone from the grateful lower classes, and begetting bastard children with them, despite being “devout” Catholics and, in Galileo’s case, personal friends with the freaking Pope.

Now if one of your children is a boy, you might, like Galileo, go to the trouble of getting him legitimatized through your political and clerical (hypocritical) relationships, even though he is a sullen and not terribly sharp child. If the other children are girls, bright and dutiful as they may be, put those inconvenient lesser beings in a convent, which operates like an adult orphanage, a workhouse made up of cast-off daughters who live in poverty, as they would in any poorhouse, where they can labor for the church without further ado and through no choice of their own. What is it but a form of white slavery?

There aren’t too many books that push my feminist button so bad, but I found it all reprehensible. And to top it off the daughter in question was a fawning and overly loving person with apparently a big forgiving heart that made me want to puke. The other daughter spent her days depressed and in the convent infirmary for want of a sharp object. Quite rightly, in my book. There should be another “Galileo’s Daughter” devoted to the one who was right in the head.

If you are really have to know everything about Galileo, you’d probably like this book, which was not uninteresting. As for me, enough was enough and thank God it’s over.
Profile Image for Susana.
480 reviews142 followers
January 2, 2022
Surpreendentemente interessante!

Estava à espera duma biografia ficcionada de Galileu, mas de ficção encontrei pouco ou nada. E na primeira parte encontrei também muito pouco da personagem que dá título a este livro. Mas depois a autora consegue realmente criar uma narrativa vívida do que foi a vida de Galileu, com a preciosa ajuda das cartas que a sua filha mais velha lhe escrevia assiduamente.

Gostei muito das cartas de Soror Maria Celeste (a filha de Galileu do título) e também gostei da forma como a autora contou a história das descobertas e escritos de Galileu, dos problemas que estes causaram à igreja católica e dos mecanismos que permitiram, ainda assim, a sua publicação.

A inclusão de alguns excertos dos livros de Galileu acrescentou interesse e algum humor (também presente, inesperadamente, nalgumas cartas da sua filha).

Por tudo isto, gostei bastante deste livro! Obrigada, Ana!
Profile Image for Quo.
284 reviews
March 25, 2021
Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love is akin to a work of biographical archeology, for in gathering documentation for the idea that became this book, the intense linkage between Galileo Galilei & his daughter, Suor Maria Celeste Galilei, the author went to live in a convent, attempting to delve deeply into the particular life of a Roman-Catholic cloistered nun in Italy, a rather foreign domain for a Jewish woman from New York City. Her compilation of details is indeed masterful and the manner in which she weaves them into a story that pits science against religion in late the 16th & early 17th centuries, makes for a very compelling book.

This book is indeed a love story, one of a very rare quality; at the same time, it is also often full of intrigue, ultimately a tragic tale for both Galileo and his illegitimate daughter, a woman who was given refuge in a very austere convent occupied by Poor Claire nuns. It seems that at this time in Italy, sons but not daughters born outside of marriage could occasionally attain a state of life with few restrictions. Particularly, in Galileo's case, being kin to someone deemed by the all-powerful church to be a heretic, put one in harm's way, more so for a daughter than a son.

Just to set the scene a bit, in Galileo's time, 30,000 men & 35,000 women lived in 27 monasteries & 53 convents in Florence alone, with 50% of daughters from patrician families spending at least part of their lives within the safety of convent walls, this at a time when Italian city states were frequently at war with France, Spain & with each other. A parent paid a dowry for a daughter entering a convent & contributed to the upkeep of the nunnery as well, even though nuns typically lived a very ascetic life.

In the letters conveyed by Suor Maria Celeste, Galileo's daughter, to her father the reader becomes aware of a purity of belief in God's presence and in her abiding support for her father's courageous struggle to justify his scientific argument for a heliocentric universe, at a time when most still contended that the earth was at its center. While the letters from Galileo to his daughter were destroyed after her death, with the mother superior most likely fearing their presence might be an indictment after Galileo's censuring by the pope, the relationship between father & daughter establishes them as "soul-mates" in my own view, two individuals sharing a common quest but in a differing manner.
No detectable strife ever disturbed the affectionate relationship between Galileo & his daughter. Theirs is not a tale of abuse or rejection or intentional stifling of abilities. Rather, it is a love story, a tragedy & a mystery.
In the view of the author, the difference discerned "between this vale of tears & the harmony of Paradise precisely echoed Aristotle's distinction between corruptible Earthly matter & the perfection of the heavens." And it his opposition to an Aristotelian view, via Ptolemy, of an earth-centered universe vs. the contention of Copernicus that the sun is at its center, that causes Galileo to be put on trial & ultimately to be imprisoned for his viewpoint, this in spite of his strong Catholic faith & on-going friendship with many of the papal clerics.

Dava Sobel is a scholar with an abiding interest in astronomy and her delineation of the conflict between these two views is one of two major frameworks for her book, with the other being the love story between an esteemed scientist & his convent-secluded daughter. In another time, the keen mind of Sr. Celeste would almost certainly have caused her to aim at a life of scientific exploration or perhaps an academic career but the author offers no apology for the restrictions on a woman's life in 17th century Italy, nor for the restrictions on what a figure like Galileo could say or write. Rather, Sobel relates her story with prose that is straight-forward, while also quite colorful & very memorable.

Popes come & go in the life of Galileo & his daughter but with the Protestant Reformation in the recent past & Italy (the Papal State) in the midst of various wars, the Popes have other agenda to deal with & Galileo's plight on the side of science is seemingly an unfortunate distraction. Beyond that, there are a series of plagues despoiling the population of Florence, the rest of non-unified Italy & all of Europe. In fact, Suor Maria Celeste offers her father convent-crafted potions at various points during the infestations. Here is just one commentary she extends to Galileo via a letter:
I beseech you not to grasp the knife of these current troubles & misfortunes by its sharp edge, lest it injure you, but rather, seizing it by the blunt side, use it to excise the imperfections you may recognize in yourself; so that you rise above the obstacles, so that by piercing through baser realms, arrive at an awareness of the vanity & fallacy of all earthly things, they being ephemeral when compared to the glory of God.
Galileo is not just a keen observer of the scientific realm but a crafty expositor of his non-traditional views of the universe and composes a book called Dialogue, wherein 3 figures, one being a stand-in for Galileo, discuss the views of Ptolemy vs. Copernicus, contending that the latter is just a "majestic paradox", this being a diplomatic literary attempt to present both sides of the scientific debate, while allowing the reader to decide. Obviously, even this veiled attempt to further a heliocentric view was done at his peril.

Alas, at this point in history, in a contest between the dominant religious view & science, all bets had best be on the papal decree. Galileo is eventually forced to recant his beliefs, while spending the remainder of his life under a form of house arrest at a home near his daughter's convent. At this point, his daughter is in decline but declares: "It does me good to continue to hope." Meanwhile, it a close colleague comment to Galileo, "I know of no one who in the same way as she remained the avid & gentle comforter in your tribulations."

What moves me to highly recommend this book, particularly to those with an interest in astronomy, is the extraordinary openness of Dava Sobel in appraising the time-spirit in which Galileo & his daughter lived and well beyond that, her ability to assess convent life and the liturgy & rituals of Roman-Catholicism at this point in history. There are a few slow-moving passages but I found Galileo's Daughter very much worth reading.

And here I offer a confession, I bought the book 2 decades ago when Dava Sobel spoke locally, began reading it only to put it aside and only now have finally read the work in its entirety, perhaps thanks to a modern plague for causing life to slow down sufficiently to appreciate life in the time of Galileo.

To be sure Galileo's Daughter is not a story that will please every reader, as a brief reading of some of the G/R reviews makes clear. A few readers suggest that the story is more that of Galileo than his daughter, a fair point but one clearly explained by Dava Sobel early on, as early as the book's subtitle. Other reviewers state that the book by Sobel pushed their "feminist button" because Italy 4 centuries ago was not nearly as egalitarian as life in a 21st century world.

What the author does, she does exceedingly well, to take us back into the shadows & vapors of history, presenting a story of a father/daughter relationship as it unfolded ages go, at a time when science was seen more as a culprit than as a companion to foundational religious values. Also recommended is Dava Sobel's early book, Longitude.

*Within my review are the images of author Dava Sobel; Galileo Galilei; the papal tribunal debating Galileo's heretical stance; Galileo's daughter, Suor Maria Celeste Galilei.
Profile Image for Lisa (Harmonybites).
1,834 reviews331 followers
February 12, 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.
Profile Image for David.
1,630 reviews105 followers
October 11, 2021
Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishment of a mythic figure whose seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion. 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 altogether." Galileo's Daughter also presents a stunning portrait of a person hitherto lost to history, described by her father as "a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me."

The son of a musician, Galileo Gahlei's (1564-1642) inventions and discoveries were heralded around the world. Most sensationally, his telescopes allowed him to reveal a new reality in the heavens and to reinforce the astounding argument that the Earth moves around the Sun. For this belief, he was brought before the Holy Office of the Inquisition, accused of heresy, and forced to spend his last years under house arrest.

Of Galileo's three illegitimate children, the eldest best mirrored his own brilliance, industry, and sensibility, and by virtue of these qualities became his confidante. Born Virginia in 1600, she was thirteen when Galileo placed her in a convent near him in Florence, where she took the most appropriate name of Suor Maria Celeste. Her loving support, which Galileo repaid in kind, proved to be her father's greatest source of strength throughout his most productive and tumultuous years. Her presence, through letters which Sobel has translated from their original Italian and masterfully woven into the narrative, graces her father's life now as it did then.

Galileo's Daughter dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishment of a mythic figure whose seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion. Moving between Galileo's grand public life and Maria Celeste's sequestered world, Sobel illuminates the Florence of the Medicis and the papal court in Rome during the pivotal era when humanity's perception of its place in the cosmos was being overturned. In that same time, while the bubonic plague wreaked its terrible devastation and the Thirty Years' War tipped fortunes across Europe, one man sought to reconcile the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic with the heavens he revealed through his telescope.

With all the human drama and scientific adventure that distinguished Longitude, Galileo's Daughter is an unforgettable story. But I do have to say that unlike what the title implied, most of the book is about details of Galileo's life with mention about his daughter written in to clarify how she helped document his activities and achievements to preserve his place in scientific history.
Profile Image for Allie.
138 reviews128 followers
July 7, 2017
DNF around 30%. The title of this book is misleading: it's really a book about Galileo and only secondarily about his daughter, who was clearly the Human Interest Angle to illuminate the life of a Great Man. Despite his devout Catholicism, Galileo had three illegitimate children with his mistress/housekeeper. While Galileo had his son legitimized, both daughters were consigned as young girls to a convent, where they lived in abject poverty and struggled with poor health. He did send occasional gifts to the convent (along with his mending and papers for his daughter Maria to transcribe).

Galileo's correspondence to Maria has been lost, so we can't learn how he regarded her. However, her letters to him survived and are interspersed with chapters about Galileo's life, scientific discoveries, and the various factions skirmishing for power in the church. Most of the letters involve Maria lavishly praising her father, abasing herself for her own ignorance, thanking him for any small tokens, worrying about his health, and offering occasional thoughts on his projects. While her letters were never self-pitying, I became increasingly annoyed with Galileo, who was too busy staring into the sun and counting spots to properly care for his daughters.

The book provides a well-written overview of Galileo's life and discoveries, so if that's your reason for reading, you may very well enjoy it. Personally, I was hoping to read more about the life of a 17th century woman involved in science, so this was a disappointment.
Profile Image for Cherisa B.
499 reviews40 followers
September 10, 2022
My husband and I had an Airbnb last year on the street in Florence where Galileo served his house arrest. This was a great book to fill in the details about how he shifted our perspective and understanding of our place in the cosmos. The hook Sobel uses to bring him to us - his illegitimate daughter who cloistered into a convent - reminds us that even with 500 years in between, women still have so much less autonomy than even men under papal orders for house arrest. But the man changed our perception of where we are in the cosmos and definitely deserves remembrance. And it’s awesome you can still walk the streets he did too.
Profile Image for Jean.
1,709 reviews742 followers
September 30, 2013
This is a well researched historical novel about the relationship between Galileo and his eldest daughter Virginia Galilei (1600-1634). Apparently Galileo did not marry Marina Gamba of Venice even though they had 3 children together. The son Vincenzo was legitimized and studied law at the University of Pisa. The two girls were deemed to be un-marriageable so were sent off to become nuns when they were 11 years old. Virginia became Suor Maria Celeste and her sister Livia became Suor Archangela. They were placed in the San Matteo Convent Arcetri of the Poor Clares order. Sobel based the story on the letters written by Suor Maria Celeste and according to Sobel the letters from Suor Maria were saved by Galileo, but his letters to her were destroyed on her death by the Mother Superior to protect the honor of the Order because of the conviction of Galileo by the Church. Sobel also researched the Vatican records, but she presented the delicate religious issues by stating only the facts. She did not go into much detail about the works of Galileo as there are well known and the book was about his relationship with the daughter. Suor Maria Celeste died in 1634 of dysentery. Sobel portrayed her as an intelligent woman well able to discuss Galileo's work with him with great understanding. She apparently proofed some of his manuscripts. I was surprised to learn that she is buried with him in his tomb. The book has relevance today as science is still under attack by political and religious fundamentalist even thought this is not the year 1600. This is an audio-book and George Guidall did his usual magnificent job narrating the story. If you are interested in science or history this book is for you.
Profile Image for Becky.
368 reviews
April 26, 2008
As the daughter of a physicist, I couldn't resist this book. It is a biography of both Galileo and his older daughter, who was a nun in a local monastery. Her letters to Galileo are the foundation of the book. I enjoyed reading the history of Galileo's trial for heresy and also the day-to-day events that mostly comprise his daughter's letters. A fascinating look into the life of Galileo and 17th-century Italy.
Profile Image for Lady Clementina ffinch-ffarowmore.
760 reviews170 followers
October 27, 2020
This book is more the story of Galileo than his daughter, but anchored for the most part around the correspondence between the two, or rather what has survived of it which is only her letters to him but not his to her (These I think were destroyed by her order because of the controversy surrounding his work). Galileo had three children (all illegitimate) but while his son was ‘legitimized’, his daughters both spent their lives cloistered (more so as no grooms could be found for them), a sad reflection on the times. The daughter in question in this book is his older daughter Suor Maria Celeste (born Virginia) who not only corresponded with him regularly but who also continued to be part of his life and work throughout—from doing small chores for him like making sweets from fruit to copying out his writings in a fair hand, to taking active interest in his life, looking after his house when he was away for his trial (all from within the convent) and pleading to him for kindness in respect of her brother and sister and the other sisters in her order. We learn a little about Galileo’s early life and work, and his initial appointments as a mathematician until his daughters are placed in the convent (most girls at the time were apparently sent to a convent until a suitable groom was found and they were married, or if none was found, took the veil; both courses involved dowries). Then of course, the story moves along telling us about Galileo’s life and work interspersed with what his daughter is experiencing (as expressed in her letters). Life for the sisters in the Covent of San Matteo was unforgiving, they often had little to eat, one or the other of them was ill and needing constant care, and even things like obtaining a cell to live in required money which they scarcely had. But Galileo helped as far as he could with money and other things needed, something he did for others in his family as well providing the dowry for his sister, supporting his brother and brother’s family, and later his son as well. Alongside these personal stories, Sobel also tells us of Galileo and his work, the different things that interested him from astronomy to motion, and his writings including his Dialogue discussing Copernican heliocentricism which led to his being tried and the work being banned for over two centuries (it was dropped from the prohibited list in 1835).

I’ve read two of Dava Sobel’s books before Longitude on John Harrisson and A More Perfect Heaven on Copernicus and enjoyed them very much, especially Longitude, and was really looking forward to this one. And it certainly did not disappoint. I thought Sobel did a wonderful job of giving us an idea not only of Galileo’s work, but also his life, his relationship with his older daughter, and a picture of life (and politics) in those times. Before I read this, I had a general idea of Galileo’s work with telescopes and with heliocentricism, but not much about his personal life or other work. The full range of subjects he worked with and his contributions on various subjects from motion to astronomy to tides, the controversy his works generated because he chose to follow a scientific method (experiment and observation), even opposing Aristotle’s findings, his struggle to balance his science and faith, all this when he was quite often suffering ill-health which incapacitated him for long periods, certainly fills one with awe. His relationship with his daughter was rather sweet—the two seemed to share their problems, lives and from the letters we see, I think Maria Celeste was the child he was closest to, his relationship with his son was difficult (although this seems to have improved a little later) and his other daughter seemed not too close to him. It was Maria Celeste who pleaded with him to show kindness to her brother even when he disappointed. Both actively supported each other, with things they needed or wanted (fruit or partridges or new collars) and emotionally stood by each other, especially Maria Celeste.

One of the things that stood out to me, reading this book during these times especially was how life had probably not changed as much as we think it has. Back in Italy in the late 16th, early-17th centuries, the plague often returned and we read of quarantines and masks (the plague doctors’, that is) and restrictions on leaving one’s home, and the difficulties Galileo faced when he needed to travel—pretty much things that we are facing today (except that he may have been able to email his manuscripts and attend his trial virtually).

I really enjoyed reading this book, it did take me a while to get into it, but that was probably my schedule more than the book for when I picked it up on my day off, I really zoomed through it, the book absorbing me completely. This was another great read from Sobel.
Profile Image for Philip.
975 reviews258 followers
March 1, 2016
Galileo, Galileo, Galileo Figaro: MAGNIFICO-O-O-O!


My biggest question, after reading this book, is what did Galileo believe?

Science has canonized him as one of their patron saints - and rightfully so. The man was a genius. But he was also a good Catholic - or at least he appeared to be. When the church told him to do something, he did it.

Yes, the church treated him completely unfairly. And when one is arguing against those speaking with the authority of God, it's difficult to complain about ignorant laws or the injustice of being charged ex post facto.

But throughout it all, he apparently maintained some sort of cognitive dissonance. Perhaps he didn't buy everything the church was selling, but he certainly didn't cast it all off either.

I was surprised to see how many of these men were devoted followers of God. Not just Galileo, but Copernicus, et al... Because it seems to me Scientists today make Galileo out to be the enemy of the church, and I don't believe he was.

Don't take this the wrong way - I'm no enemy of Science. I'm all for Science. But I don't think it's fair to the memory of Galileo to set him up as a propaganda piece. Scientists, especially, should know that the world is much more complicated than that.

And, while we're talking about Science, it was brought up that Galileo's most enduring discovery wasn't his star-gazing. It was his use of experimentation. Testing, and testing, and retesting. Taking on the word of Aristotle by proving something. Sure, his discoveries are important - but he changed the way we approach problems - and that impacts all branches of Science - whereas discovering some moons mostly effects astronomy.

As for Religion, I found it odd that Sobel didn't talk about Luther more. He gets mentioned a couple times, whereas The Thirty Years War gets brought up often. Part of the reason the church (and when I say the church, I'm talking about the Catholic church here, not the Protestants... they had their own problems at the moment...) was so hard on Galileo was because its authority had been challenged in The Thirty Years War. And yes, that's more in the time-frame, but certainly they hadn't forgotten about The 95 Theses. That was the catalyst.

Either way, the church was fighting an uphill battle with Galileo. I imagine one could argue that God was on his side. Science at least was.

This brings up one of Galileo's main points. Nature cannot contradict the Bible. If we see something in nature that contradicts scripture, either we aren't looking at it correctly, or our interpretation of scripture is incorrect. He says, "Holy Scripture cannot err and the decrees therein contained are absolutely true and and inviolable. I should only have added that, though Scripture cannot err, its expounders and interpreters are liable to err in many ways..." This is THE paradox of a faith that teaches the infallibility of Scripture.

At the time, these claims were edgy, no doubt. But even so, I'd contend Galileo was still a good decent Catholic. When the church told him to censor his book, he did. He blacked out "the offending passages." Although, Sobel adds that he did so, "with very light strokes."

This brings me to some last thoughts dealing with censorship.

I heard that Stalin censored the same way. He'd outright ban books, or he'd have everyone black out offending passages.

And, I know I'm going out on a limb here... I know I'm getting away from Galileo... but this is what really, REALLY worries me about Kindles and e-Books, and i-Pads, etc... That if someone comes along and wants to censor something, with books they have to go one at a time. With e-books, a person can just click - - - - - - - and it's gone.
Profile Image for Ana.
633 reviews84 followers
October 3, 2021
Estava à espera de ficção e saiu-me uma espécie de biografia. Esperava um livro sobre a filha de Galileu, e saiu-me um que fala sobretudo do pai. Ainda assim, gostei bastante.

O livro foi construído a partir de um conjunto de cartas escritas pela filha mais velha de Galileu, freira clarissa em clausura, ao seu pai e inclui várias ilustrações que enriquecem bastante o texto.

Senti-me realmente transportada para a época, surpreendi-me com o comum e natural que eram as redes de favores e "cunhas" a todos os níveis, aprendi umas quantas coisas e comovi-me no final.
Profile Image for Silvana.
1,150 reviews1,119 followers
December 29, 2021
Galileo had a daughter? So what? That question may be raised, which is understandable. Besides, famous people do procreate, right? What makes Galileo’s Daughter so significant anyway? Well, if you read this book, you surely will change your mind.

Dava Sobel again amazed me with her skill in combining history, science and human relations into one book. Not many authors could do such thing, I daresay. She successfully wove this story of a brave, intelligent, resourceful young woman, who had a genius as her father and how both of them relied on each other to live in difficult times. By the way, his daughter was a cloistered nun with the name Maria Celeste. But that did not stop her from being her father’s rock. Her surviving correspondence with Galileo is the main ingredient used by Sobel to describe the dynamics of this unique father-daughter relationship. The contents varied; from her request to Galileo to buy her things such as herbs and linens, the news update on what was going on in her convent, to her consolation for Galileo when he was facing trials in Rome. Not only letters apparently, but she also made him clothes and medicines. It was as though she lived in the same house with him and took care of him. Walls and distance were not barriers. Imagine if they both had Blackberrys.

This book elaborates much about his works, including the scandalous Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which upholds Copernicus’ theory that the earth revolves around the sun, which is also a book that required almost two centuries (!) to be dropped from the list of banned books by the Congregation of the Holy Office.

Nevertheless, although they did not have rapidshare/mirc/torrent those days, it did not stop the book from being distributed in Italy and beyond. Couriers and diplomatic missions were walking around bringing a copy of Dialogue as they please. Galileo was lucky to have so many admirers in Europe, including even a few high ranking cardinals who felt enlightened when reading his works.

One thing that bothers me was that Galileo did his best to ensure that Dialogue would not cause any ruckus. He used the proper channels, consulted to the relevant officials, gathered sufficient supports from prominent nobles and even sought an audience with the Pope to discuss the book! Nevertheless, one could always find a tiny bit of something to be used as incriminating evidence. Galileo finally admitted guilty and let himself (a frail 69 year old then) to be punished. Anyway, IMHO his punishment was not too depressing. House arrest in the residence of a Sienese cardinal who was one of his strong supporters? He could still write, received some guests (some with the permission from the Papal Office) and had correspondence with fellow scientists and family. C’mon, ‘twas not too bad, right?

Seriously now, I understand that it was still hard for him. He had lots of enemies who would love to see him rot miserably. The pressure he had to face must have been horrendous. Having your ultimate work - which took decades in the making – banned and that you could not publish anything ever again, must be frustrating as hell. For future readers, please do not be disheartened from reading the scientific explanation in this book. First, there are lots of them anyway (haha). Secondly, they would give the readers insight on Galileo’s personal thinking, which sometimes could be so intriguing and cheeky at the same time.

The historical account in this book, describing the flow of events and characters in that illustrious Renaissance era, is truly mesmerizing. The interaction between the states and duchies, the politics inside the Papal court and even the bubonic plague present a thrilling read.

Back to Suor Maria Celeste, Galileo described her as a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness and most tenderly attached to him. I guess he realized that she was his greatest treasure and would be thankful if people could pay her a proper homage when thinking about how great a scientist he was. The Father of modern physics would not ‘exist’ without her, period. This is true testament to the adage “Behind a great man, there's a great woman”, am I correct? ;)
Profile Image for Jo.
657 reviews63 followers
March 26, 2016
To find yourself a little in love with the mind of a seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher can come as a surprise to the average reader such as myself. How one man can contribute quite so much to our understanding of the world and beyond is awe-inspiring as is making the experience of reading about him so enjoyable.

Dava Sobel does an excellent job of helping us to see Galileo the person, partly through the obvious high esteem he was held in by so many from Popes to servants, partly in the care and concern he showed for these same friends and family but, primarily in his relationship with his eldest daughter Suor Maria Celeste.

My first reaction on finding that Galileo wouldn’t marry the mother of his three children and shut up both the girls in a nunnery from the ages of twelve and thirteen to their death was, “What a git!” But I had to gently push my twentieth century perspective out of the way and understand that this was perfectly normal at the time, and that if the alternative was arranged marriage to some unknown quantity, perhaps a nunnery was not such an unappealing prospect.

Through her letters we see that for Maria Celeste, there was no hate for her Father for that decision. Her letters are consistently caring, empathetic and self-less, although she is not afraid to ask for many favors from her Father for the nunnery and its individual members. It’s difficult to read about how hard their lives were despite their vows of poverty, yet it seems Galileo answered every request and only wanted his daughters to be comfortable and happy.

We only get to hear one side of the correspondence between the two as Galileo’s letters to his daughter were lost and I mourn this fact along with Dava Sobel for the even greater insight we would have had into their relationship. Having said that, Galileo was a prolific correspondent and so we do at least have surviving letters he wrote to others yet the nature of their bond, which Sobel so effortlessly surmises, can still only really be guessed at by his actions and those of others. I loved the very telling story about the final resting place of Galileo and his tomb but will leave that to the reader to find out for themselves.

Galileo was a true Renaissance man, a mathematician and philosopher as well as a poet and playwright, writing plays for the nuns to perform at the same time he was revolutionizing the knowledge of physics. He was also, however, a highly religious man and the conflict between this inquiring brain that looked into the stars and the interpretations of scripture by others -not scripture itself for he saw no conflict between this and science - caused him endless pain.

What was fascinating was that so many other religious men admired and respected his findings and it was really only his numerous enemies that made these so controversial. Looking back it is difficult to understand the power that the Papacy, in particular, had to restrict knowledge that now for us seems undeniable, but it took almost two hundred years for Galileo’s ‘Dialogue’ to be removed from the Index of Prohibited Books.

Suor Maria Celeste always believed in her Father and his work without question. Their relationship thrived on the fact that she could converse about and understand the work her Father did and one can only imagine what she herself could have contributed to his work if free to live like a man. This is a fascinating account of the life of a scientific pioneer made more real and empathetic by the relationships he had with many, but in particular his much loved older daughter.
Profile Image for Mike.
229 reviews14 followers
April 15, 2012
It seems ludicrous in today's age of technology and incremental achievements that one man could ever accomplish as much as Galileo, who discovered almost half of the planets we know of today and rubbished claims held scientifically for thousands of years.

Galileo Galilei was born into a time and a place that could not have been more perfect for him. At the turn of the 17th century, much of Europe had already cast off the oppressive cloak of ignorance held fast by the Catholic Church for the previous millennium. In Italy, Florence had given birth to the Renaissance and was spearheading the drive towards new knowledge. This was an age in which Galileo would be able to meet such luminaries as Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes and John Milton, to name but the best known internationally among them.

During his more than seventy years he pushed the boundaries of astronomy, philosophy and physics in a way unseen since the days of Aristotle, adapting the telescope and discovering several planets, pushed ideas that would be the basis on which Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein would work. And into that life stepped the overbearing, insecure Pope Urban VIII, who would ban Galileo from teaching and printing any of his ideas, since his work was 'contrary to Scripture'.

It is difficult for anyone with an enquiring mind, a sense of freedom or justice or even a passing interest in science not to become angry to the point of rage at the story of Galileo's life. So much more could have been achieved and discovered had he been allowed by the neurotic idiots at the Vatican to continue his work. That organisation - which, I might add, decried Italy's burgeoning railway network in the mid-19th century in the same terms - did not see fit to 'pardon' Galileo until the 1980s - the NINETEEN-EIGHTIES.

What comes from a reading of this book is an enormous amount of respect for Galileo Galilei, fury at the wilfully ignorant buffoons who would have us living in the Stone Age that they may remain in power, and love for the depth of feeling he shared with his daughter. Galileo remained as good a Christian as any whilst the captains of that religion sought to rid the world of his findings. The letters he received from his daughter (his to her have not survived) show a huge love worthy of a story in its own right.

In the end, Grand Duke Ferdinando of Florence, though banned from giving Galileo anything but the most basic of burials, called him "the greatest light of our times". “Today the news has come of the loss of Signor Galilei,” wrote Lucas Holste, Francesco Cardinal Barberini’s Vatican librarian, "which touches not just Florence but the whole world, and our whole century which from this divine man has received more splendor than from almost all the other ordinary philosophers. Now, envy ceasing, the sublimity of that intellect will begin to be known which will serve all posterity as guide in the search for truth.”

And so it is that the forces of blindness, corruption and silence have entered the 21st century in disgrace while Galileo Galilei is held among the greatest of men ever to have lived; a calming and reassuring thought if ever there was one.

This is a wonderfully written book which takes an interesting angle of approach and succeeds entirely. Sobel's narrative, thorough and full of explanation for the less scientifically knowledgeable, is easy to read and even poetic in places.
Profile Image for Beth.
229 reviews
January 1, 2020
I think I prefer this book to Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time which is also good, but not quite as captivating.

Galileo's oldest child, born of his illicit liaison with the beautiful Marina Gamba of Venice, was thirteen years old when he placed her at the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri. He never married her mother, so he thought that the girl would be unmarriageable. Her given name was Virginia (after Galileo's sister), but when she became a nun, she adopted the name Maria Celeste, a name inspired by her fathers work in astronomy (as in celestial).

She was part of the Order of St. Clare, a contemplative order of nuns known as the Clarrises, or the Poor Clares. The order was named for the first female follower of St. Francis of Assisi. She initiated the tradition of work in the convents, filling the hours between daily offices with spinning and embroidery. The rules of the order enforced a very ascetic existence even compared to other convents, as all Poor Clares were dependent on alms. Galileo frequently sent financial assistance to the convent, but it was still a very difficult way to live. The book includes many excerpts from Maria Celeste's letters to her father, of which 124 letters survive. Although they wrote to each other frequently, Galileo's side of the correspondence has not been preserved.

Galileo began his career as a professor of mathematics, but the work in astronomy for which he is best known began when, in 1609, he became the first person to point a telescope skyward. The telescope revealed previously unseen features on the moon, a closer view of the Milky Way than could be seen with the naked eye (revealing its dense clusters of stars), and the first four moons of Jupiter. For these discoveries, he won appointment as chief mathematician and philosopher at the court of Cosimo de Medici in 1610. He published a book, The Starry Messenger, describing his observations. It sold out within a week of publication.

In letters to his former student Benedetto Castelli and to the Duchess Christina (daughter of Charles III of Lorraine) Galileo explained why he thought that the heliocentric view of universe was not in conflict with scripture. The first letter became widely circulated and a Dominican friar who heard about it, Tommaso Caccini, arrived at the Inquisition's offices in Rome to denounce Galileo for heresy. At the end of 1615, Galileo traveled to Rome hoping to clear his name of the suspicion of heresy.

In 1616, Galileo was warned to curtail his studies of the motions of heavenly bodies and told that the subject was best left to the fathers of the Church. For seven years he obeyed, turning his attention to other issues, such as using the moons of Jupiter to calculate longitude and developing a compound microscope with which he observed insects.

In 1623 a new pope, Pope Urban VIII, took office. Galileo knew him personally; he had demonstrated his telescope to him and discussed the physics of floating bodies with him at a banquet at the Florentine court. So Galileo hoped that under the new pope, he would be allowed to return to the study of astronomy, and he decided to proceed with his plans to write a book on the two rival theories of cosmology, the sun-centered and the earth-centered. This book was the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632.

The following year, Galileo was brought in for questioning by the Inquisition. He was tried and convicted of heresy, imprisoned, and eventually released under a revised sentence of house arrest. He then sold his home in Tuscany in order to move closer to the Convent of San Matteo and serve his time under house arrest there, but a few months later she fell ill and died of dysentery at the age of 34.

I really enjoyed this, mostly for the narrative itself, but also because of the author's narration, which includes asides like this one on Galileo's experiments:

Although this account reveals stunning experiments that promise to open a new window on philosophy, Salviati cannot be shaken from his recently acquired pedantic monotone, which threatens to establish an irreparable split, if not between science and religion, then between science and poetry.

I listened to most of this on audio, but I also had a library copy of the ebook, both checked out from OverDrive.
Profile Image for Jennifer (JC-S).
2,864 reviews197 followers
February 15, 2014
‘There was only one trial of Galileo, and yet it seems there were a thousand –‘

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
Profile Image for Paul.
306 reviews10 followers
December 1, 2011
This is an amazing book, and just the thing to cleanse the mental palate after inflicting Nancy Kress' An Alien Light on myself. Galileo's story is really at the crux of the transition from Aristotelian physics to what we now call Newtonian or classical physics. It was Galileo and his contemporaries who finally broke the stranglehold that Aristotle had on philosophy in the West and improved on him. Today we are generally told a very few things about Galileo:

- He was essentially the first to use a telescope on the night sky and observe new phenomena, such as the moons of Jupiter or the roughness of the moon or a dim impression of Saturn's rings.

- He was condemned by the Catholic Church for espousing Copernicus' hypothesis that the Earth circles the Sun and that the daily motion of celestial objects is caused by the Earth's rotation, rather than the motion of Aristotle and Ptolemy's spheres.

That's all I knew about him for many years. I had grasped more details in the last several years before reading this book, but it gives me an overflowing wealth of information about his life and a much better idea of the history and details of the controversy that led to his trial in Rome. Obviously I recommend anyone and everyone read this book for themselves and get these details.

I actually saw this author speak, largely about this book, in Indianapolis in 2008 or 2009, so I snapped the book up right away when I saw it at a used bookstore in Honolulu (overcrowded baggage be damned). What I find most amazing is that this woman is Jewish, yet she sympathetically advances the thesis that Galileo was throughout his life a staunch Catholic who made himself enemies by his sharp wit and criticism of establishment (i.e. Aristotelian, which was nearly everyone at the time) academics, who were able to bring about his condemnation after many years, while he retained many friends, also intellectually committed Catholics, who were convinced of his sincerity and that his interpretations of his discoveries were perfectly reconcilable with the faith.

I will end by noting that Galileo's Daughter is his eldest daughter, an intelligent and committed Poor Clare with whom Galileo corresponded often. Most of the correspondence Dava included in the book is about the daily human affairs of early seventeenth century Italy and gives a comforting picture of the humanity of both Galileo, Suor Maria, and the people around them.
Profile Image for Elliot Ratzman.
516 reviews67 followers
January 14, 2022
The most accessible biography of Galileo I’ve encountered so far. Besides the wise primary documents that she quotes—letters, inquisitional reports, Galileo’s prose—and the useful illustrations, what makes Sobel’s book stand out is the color she provides to the “side characters” often reduced to stick figures in other accounts I’ve read. While not a central character, it’s fascinating to track his daughter’s life and letters—it provides a welcome dimension to Galileo’s story and some insight into the gender dynamics of the time. Sobel also fills out the portrait of Pope Urban VIII, Galileo’s erstwhile admirer who ends up putting Galileo in a compromising position (and vice versa) ending up in the Inquisitional trial of 1634. We also get a glimpse at Galileo’s quotidian life, illnesses and expenses. We see how interwoven Catholicism was in his life, from his support of his daughters’ convent, the prayers he offers, to the dazzling parade of priests who are his friends and collaborators.
Profile Image for Anne.
797 reviews29 followers
July 27, 2007
This is a biography of Galileo, told in part through letters written to him by his illegitimate daughter, a cloistered nun and Galileo's confidante. Over 125 letters written by her survive, though all of the letters from Galileo to his daughter have reportedly been lost or destroyed. While the familial relationship was interesting, I didn't feel as if the correspondence added much to the narrative, and it seemed as if most of the biographical information about Galileo came from other sources. As I am not particularly interested in astronomy, mathematics, or physics, I found most of the discussion of Galileo's findings and research a bit boring (I know it's all incredibly important and I respect that, I just don't care to read about it). I was interested in Galileo's treatment by the church, but at this point I feel like most of that information is common knowledge, and I almost felt as if Sobel's retelling of the story was like reading a high school textbook. I was unimpressed by her writing, and felt as if the use of the letters was too gimmicky - a way to appear to have a new angle on Galileo's life, but not really adding much overall. That being said, a very well-read friend of mine who reads biographies by the dozen loves this book - and feels that it was most certainly deserving of all the praise it has received. More science-minded individuals would probably enjoy it.
Profile Image for Erin.
415 reviews31 followers
September 13, 2009
I was really disappointed in this book. I knew when I purchased it that it wasn't actually about Galileo's daughter, that the story was almost entirely Galileo's. Still, I figured the the father/daughter relationship would provide some important framework for the story. It didn't really. This is a fairly dry biography of Galileo and the personal and professional events that shaped his life. There's not much more to it.

In the book, Galileo's daughter, Suor Maria Celeste, having been consigned to a convent as a preteen, is now a nun who rarely sees her father and communicates with him via letters. Her letters to him have survived and many are included in the book, but they don't shed as much light on Galileo's life as I'd hoped. I got really, really bored with the narrative, which was a very straightforward telling of the events of Galileo's life. In my opinion, nonfiction is always best when it reads like a novel and not like a history book. Unfortunately, this was a history book. I didn't enjoy the read and didn't take much away from it. It was a disappointment.
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,922 reviews1,258 followers
November 7, 2021
Dava Sobel is perhaps my favourite non-fiction author. She has this ability to discuss the history of science in an enlightening and inspiring way. Her books make these historical figures come alive. While Galileo is far better known than the subjects of her more recent The Glass Universe , Sobel takes a new approach to biography of him by including letters from his daughter, Maria Celeste. Though I’m not sure the amount of letters and focus on her is enough to earn the book its title, I’m willing to stipulate the conceit because the book is otherwise luscious.

Sobel begins with the usual tour of Galileo’s youth before digging into his decades of productive discovery, invention, experimentation, and writing. The emphasis here is less on the scientific nature of Galileo’s work and more on the political and social context in which Galileo performed it. Hence, while Sobel will mention the science that Galileo advances, she doesn’t go into a great deal of detail about how that science works. This is far more of a history book than a science book (and I’m ok with that).

What I most enjoyed about Sobel’s approach is the way she grounds Galileo’s life in the history of the Italian states and the Catholic Church (which is reeling from the ramifications of the Reformation). We’ve rather mythologized Galileo, down to his defiant yet apocryphal, “And yet it moves!” that he was supposed to have uttered at his sentencing. Sobel tackles Galileo the myth, deconstructs it, and shows us Galileo the man. Through Maria Celeste’s letters, we see Galileo the father and convent benefactor. From the writings of cardinals and other correspondents, we see Galileo the gentleman philosopher. From the transcripts of his trials, we see Galileo the penitent Catholic. Galileo did not consider himself a heretic, and he didn’t even particularly see himself as a rebel—he did his best to adhere to the guidelines set down by the Church. His sin, if you will, was simply that he wanted to share his science with the rest of the world.

The account of Galileo’s decades-long tussle with the Church feels particularly relevant in today’s era of cancel culture. Some of us take for granted how unfettered our speech is (at least in my corner of the world). I can, if I choose, write whatever I want on this website I have built myself, and I could even pay someone to print and bind my words in hard copy if I wanted to do that. Galileo, in contrast, needed permission from his local archbishop before he could publish anything, lest he spread heresy (and if you’ve read Areopagitica then you know the Catholic countries were not alone in this restriction). That is truly cancel culture, folx. Galileo’s work was literally cancelled by the authorities of the time, as opposed to today, where you can truly heinous things and face little in the way of consequences, let alone cancellation.

The historical context of Galileo’s struggle also helps 21st century readers understand why his work was such a big deal. It’s not precisely that what he wrote in his Dialogues was heretical. It was more about certain people in the Church, including the once-friendly Pope Urban, being concerned with maintaining the power base of the Church in the face of an increasing number of restless Protestant states. Galileo was writing in a time of great religious and also political upheaval, particularly the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia and the resulting modern definition of a sovereign state. So unlike the simplistic version we might have heard in school—that the Church feared Galileo had “proved” the Bible was wrong—the truth is more along the lines that Galileo’s writing was too independent. He published in lay Italian rather than Latin, which meant more common people could read it, and the Dialogues themselves—regardless of their content—encouraged a kind of philosophical critical thinking that threatened the Church’s grip on people’s minds. This was Galileo’s threat: he might make people think, not just about whether the Earth orbits the Sun or vice versa, but about the political structures in which they were embedded.

Lest you think Sobel focuses too much on the big picture, however, never fear: she also focuses on the minutiae of Florentine (or Roman) life. This is where Maria Celeste’s letters come in. Some might scoff at including these details—why do we need to know about the purchase of some cloth for the convent, how much it cost, what Maria Celeste baked for her father with some fruits he sent her … does that really matter in the story of one of history’s Great Men? Yes, Sobel argues—and I agree—because we need to dismantle this idea of Great Men. Behind Great Men are not just Great Women but entire communities of people of all genders. Galileo had a large extended family, some of whom lived with him at various points in his chronically ill life. He had a housekeeper, a valet, apprentices. He had daughters, one of whom wrote frequently to him. These details matter because they remind us that history happens not because of a single great person forging ahead alone but rather because individuals and groups of individuals have the support and privilege required to make, in this case, scientific discoveries.

Moreover, these details help us understand what life was like in Galileo’s day. Nowadays travel between Rome and Florence is a routine matter of hours. In Galileo’s time, it would take weeks and might involve being quarantined because of plague in one or both cities! Indeed, the spectre of the bubonic plague is an important one in this book, and Sobel reminds us of how many lives were cut short. She could not have anticipated that, a decade after publication, I would be reading this during a pandemic in which “quarantine” became a household word. Yeah, that brought up some feels….

This is yet another marvelous work of history from a master of it. I learned a lot about Galileo, but more importantly, I learned far more about Galileo’s time and the people in it, which helped me understand his contributions to science in a way that merely learning the science itself cannot. That’s the power of these history of science books, and Sobel’s decision to include English translations of letters that had heretofore remained generally untranslated and obscure gives us a unique window into Galileo’s daily life and needs. I, for one, appreciate how this humanizes someone we might otherwise be tempted to turn into a giant.

Scientific progress, not to mention social progress, is far from linear. Galileo was censored in his time and remained so for centuries. Along the way, we saw some people make great strides forward in science, other people try to undo that progress. We’re seeing that even now, in our own time. I hope this book offers us lessons of our past that we can apply to our present as we work to build a better, fairer, more open future of discovery.

Originally posted on Kara.Reviews, where you can easily browse all my reviews and subscribe to my newsletter.

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Profile Image for Ayse_.
155 reviews72 followers
June 16, 2019
Why would a very good hearted and wise girl not be given any chance to use her mind but only her labor and live a very poor and unfulfilling life. Thus is the life of Suor Maria Celeste. Only finding a little happiness may be in knowing the happiness and contentment of those she loved and served. I am sure many a girl/women of human history has done so, willingly or unwillingly..Still I find it shocking that even the light of a very enlightened father cannot reduce the darkness of ignorance and disparity from his own house.

To all the women who sacrificed their lives one way or another, believing this to be necessary for making others' lives happy or comfortable or livable; I hope it was worth it, for its such a high price to pay; and I hope life honors your sacrifices and gives you some acknowledgement even if its after 500 years and in a book.

Galileo was the Prometheus of his time. An extraordinary mind, wit and perception. In the end he was punished for it.

Very interesting book that recaptures the circumstances, the dynamics of that era. A book that makes one feel grateful for being born in our time.

“The arduous existence of the Poor Clares was described baldly by a contemporary of Suor Maria Celeste’s and Suor Arcangela’s— Maria Domitilla Galluzzi, who entered the house of the Clarisses in Pavia in 1616, and later wrote her own interpretation of the Rule of Saint Clare.
“Show her how we dress in vile clothing,” Maria Domitilla counseled any nun introducing a candidate for admission to the sisters’ way of life, “always go barefoot, get up in the middle of the night, sleep on hard boards, fast continually, and eat crass, poor, and lenten food, and spend the major part of the day reciting the Divine Office and in long mental prayers, and how all of our recreation, pleasure, and happiness is to serve, love, and give pleasure to the beloved Lord, attempting to imitate his holy virtues, to mortify and villify ourselves, to suffer contempt, hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and other inconveniences for his love.”

“Suor Maria Celeste’s word for the loving indulgence that characterized her father’s attentiveness—amorevolezza—appears more than twenty times in her 124 surviving letters, thanking him for some recent act of thoughtfulness or generosity toward herself, her sister, or someone else in the convent. Thus, all the while that Galileo was inventing modern physics, teaching mathematics to princes, discovering new phenomena among the planets, publishing science books for the general public, and defending his bold theories against establishment enemies, he was also buying thread for Suor Luisa, choosing organ music for Mother Achillea, shipping gifts of food, and supplying his homegrown citrus fruits, wine, and rosemary leaves for the kitchen and apothecary at San Matteo.

“Meanwhile, Austrian Hapsburg troops fighting in Mantua inadvertently released a biological weapon along with their musket fire, by carrying the bubonic plague across the Alps into Italy in 1629. Urban, as part of his program to protect the populace from this threat, now traveled clear across Rome every Sunday to say mass at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, where a treasured image of the Madonna had miraculously barred the plague from the city in the sixth century”“Suor Maria Celeste further nursed Galileo by plying him with every new plague preventative she could fabricate in her apothecary shop or procure by other means. ”

Excerpt From: Dava Sobel. “Galileo's Daughter.” Apple Books.
Profile Image for Kaara.
36 reviews3 followers
March 30, 2009
This book was clearly a labor of love, well researched and with sympathetic, very human depictions of Galileo, his daughter Sister Maria Celeste, and other folks. I learned a lot about Galileo's unbelievable discoveries, his equally important and forward-thinking contributions to the scientific community in terms of process and rigor, his family, and the politics, culture, and technology of the times he lived in. All very interesting. But the angle of this book, of Galileo's life being viewed through the eyes of his daughter, who shared his enormous intellect and capabilities and with whom he had a loving relationship, didn't really...work. Intelligent and accomplished as she seemed to be, she was a cloistered nun her entire (short) life, and, while her letters to Galileo survived, his letters to her did not; both these factors limited Maria Celeste as a main player in the narrative, despite the author's efforts. Nevertheless, a fascinating and inspiring story (and sobering--seems that every era has its folks who would rather hurt people than accept a change in common knowledge).
8 reviews
March 29, 2021
I hate it so much. It's terrible. Not even about his daughter. Ruined AP Euro for me. Ruined literature for me. Every day that I wake up in the world where this book exists I am miserable. I'd give it 0 stars if possible. One day I will burn my copy of it.
Profile Image for Javier Santaolalla.
35 reviews1,194 followers
November 27, 2017
La vida de Galileo es una de las más emocionantes e intensas de la historia de la ciencia. Su forma de ver el mundo, su talento, su creatividad... pero desde luego también su confrontación con el sentir de la época, el conocimiento establecido y desde luego, con la iglesia católica.
Este libro hace un recorrido por la vida de Galileo. Una vida de por sí amena, dinámica, entretenida, un auténtico personaje. Sin embargo, como se amenaza al lector en el título, la hija de Galileo, Sor María Celeste, juega un papel muy importante, y es que la relación padre-hija era muy intensa y está recogida en numerosas cartas. A mi personalmente estas cartas me aportan poco, más allá del "padre e hija estaban muy unidos", puesto que en la mayor parte de ellas se tratan aspectos irrelevantes de la historia. Es mi humilde opinión y en efecto influyó mucho en la forma en que leí el libro: cada vez que se trataba algo relacionado con su hija o el convento me saltaba todas esas páginas sin pensármelo.
Por otro lado otros momentos muy importantes de la vida de Galileo como su estancia en Padua donde realizó sus investigaciones sobre mecánica y movimiento pasan completamente inadvertidos.
En suma, un libro interesante, pero dada la vida tan colorida del retratado, me supo a poco.
A seguir leyendo sobre Galileo porque me he quedado con las ganas.
944 reviews53 followers
September 30, 2012
Most people vaguely know of Galileo, the 16th century Italian astronomer who overturned the centuries-old Ptolemaic belief that the sun revolves around earth and subsequently found himself in trouble with the Catholic Church. What Sobel does in this book is to put a specific human face on the man, to show how, despite his brilliance, he was a man of his time, a devout Catholic, and a man like most of us who had worries about money, the welfare of his children, his health. Galileo’s daughter, a cloistered Poor Clare nun, is a part of this picture as her letters to her father have survived and are quoted from generously to demonstrate the loving nature of her father.

Why was the church so opposed to Galileo’s scientific discoveries, ones he made with the use of better telescopes which he helped design, as well as his mathematical calculations? I think it was a matter of two factors. First, church theologians thought that a system that had the earth revolving around the sun contradicted Biblical passsages such as those from Ecclesiastes which has the sun rising and setting or the passage showing the sun stopping for Joshua.
For Galileo this was never a problem as he thought, along with Augustine, that the interpretation of the Bible should never be restricted to a literal one. Rather, many of its passages were to be seen as using literary and symbolic devices, designed to foster people’s devotion,. A worthy aim, and that was all.

Secondly, the Catholic Church, then as today, did not like to admit error. It valued consistency, and in Galileo’s case, there were condemnations of Copernicus who a half century earlier had refuted, on observable and mathematical grounds, the notion of a earth-centered solar system. So, to admit Galileo’s observations as true would be to reverse the opposition to Copernicus. Interestingly, no one really disputed either man on experimental data – it was a question of rejecting them because they opposed ideas of Aristotle who was highly revered. This distinction is at the heart of the opposition to Galileo – he didn’t match up with the vested interests in Aristotelian theories.

Galileo was widely respected, though, and in l616 he got the green light from Cardinal Bellarmine to go ahead with his research, but he could promote his ideas as only “theory” not fact or truth. Just one “theory” among others. His way of following this prescription was to write a dialogue between three “seekers of truth”, one a pompous Aristotelian philosopher, one who was Galileo’s alter ego, and the third an intelligent impartial observer. They discuss over a period of four days Galileo’s sun-centered conclusions, and of course the reader ends up siding with Galileo as he has the better arguments.

There, the matter stood until 15 years later, the case was reopened. There was now a new pope, Urban VIII, who was under political pressure from the 30 Years War to be firm in guarding the Catholic faith, from any more deviations from the “truth”. Cardinal Bellarmine, dead, was no longer around to stand up for Galileo, and he faced a very conservative panel of Inquisition cardinals who felt his dialogue was just a sneaky way of promoting a heretical position. Galileo’s ideas were condemned as false and opposed to doctrinal truth. and his writings on the subject were to be confiscated and destroyed. He was given a relatively lenient punishment, provided he recanted and admitted his position was false one..

Galileo had no argument with the Church overall, just on this particular point. He signed documents admitting his “error” and was punished with a form of house arrest. He continued his research, although he was not allowed to publish anything. Should Galileo have acted differently? He was by now an old man, in poor health, and what was the point of subjecting himself to suffering and torture? His findings were already known, abroad in Protestant countries, if not in Italy. And he was supporting family members who would have been destitute without him. Given these considerations, his actions are understandable.

The book fills in his life, then. The daughter’s letters, loving, but often seeking financial support for her convent, are interesting, but not really essential to the book. The author’s conclusion which comes down squarely on Galileo’s contribution to SCIENCE, not FAITH or LOVE, is that his importance lies in his emphasis on the practical and experimental value of science. Today, I think there is a parallel to be drawn between Galileo and the controversy over global warming. Vested interests, then as now, are opposed to changes that would mean a reversal of the accepted ways of thinking and doing things. And then, as now, there is a distrust of experimental and mathematical procedures that don’t line up with “common sense.” But that's a theory in itself, to be tested, just like any other.
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