‘Galileo’s Daughter’ by Dava Sobel: My thoughts

Sometimes I devour a book and just can’t put it down, and other times I savor it and enjoy every morsel.  This time, with my recent read, I have done the latter.  I did, after all, have a reading plan. I was all set to read more about The Salem Witch trials, but then something happened: a certain book caught my attention. The premise intrigued me and when my curiosity about this book got the better of me, I decided that I had to learn more about it, and so I picked it up!  The wonderful book I am referring to is:


And let me just say that this book does not disappoint.

So, you may ask, what is this book about? It’s a biography of Galileo with letters from his eldest daughter, a nun in a convent, interspersed throughout the book.  Dava Sobel details Galileo’s life, from the invention of the telescope, to the discoveries he made with it and ultimately, to his battle with the Church regarding correct belief and his trial and sentencing for heresy before the Inquisition. And throughout all of his many achievements and setbacks, were letters he received from his daughter, letters that Sobel has woven seamlessly into Galileo’s story revealing another side to this great man of science and introducing us to someone history has heard very little about.

I must admit, the title, Galileo’s Daughter, led me to believe that his daughter would be more of a central character. However, despite the perhaps misleading title-or was it, since it was the title that got my attention -we get to learn a little more about her. I appreciated the way the author inserted letters from Galileo’s daughter throughout the book which allowed us to hear her voice as a part of Galileo’s story.

She was named Virginia by her parents, but became Suor Maria Celeste when she took her vows. She entered San Matteo convent when she was thirteen where she would spend the rest of her life. Her letters provide glimpses of life behind the convent walls, where they led a life of poverty and privation; she often wrote to her father asking for money or blankets or whatever other need arose.  My heart went out to her as I read through this book and her letters because she would never have the freedom to live her own life or to find and follow her own interests. Her letters reveal that she was often sick, had minimal time to herself and on more than one occasion she even refers to herself as being in prison. This is in stark contrast with Galileo’s life of freedom and ease where he enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of both like minded people and those with oposing opinions. He was free to debate and explore scientific theories, make observations through his telescope and write books.

From my reading of this book, Galileo seemed like a good man who loved his children, but because his two daughters were illegitimate, they were considered unmarriageable. His solution: send them to a convent. It seems that this practice was not uncommon in 17th century Italy and many young girls spent at least some time in a convent before a husband was found for them. In this instance, however, there may have been other factors involved. I learned that Galileo was often ill and the “Copernican Controvery”was about to begin so there may have been some concern for their safety. I think that poor health and his own academic desires and pursuits made it difficult for him to care for his daughters. However, it’s possible that he may have been truly concerned for their safety because his scientific beliefs would begin to be questioned by the church.

The subtitle of the book is A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love and we certainly see the juxtaposition of science and faith. Galileo: his very name calls to mind the clash between science and faith, and yet, he was a devout Catholic.  Unfortunately, Galileo’s science, specifically, his astonishing  observations of the cosmos, just happened to be in conflict with the Church’s teaching, although he never considered himself to have acted against Scripture. It seems to beg the question: can one study the natural world and discover new and amazing wonders in it and still hold to the Bible? Are science and faith at war? It’s a question that is still relevant today.

I don’t read too many books about science, which is something I may need to correct, and this book was a nice combination of both science and history.  The only other book I read by Dava Sobel was her Longitude book which I also enjoyed.  She really is a wonderful writer who makes reading about these men of science interesting. I enjoyed this book immensely and I found Galileo’s life fascinating. What a brilliant mind! I appreciated just learning more of his story and reading about how certain events took shape. Somehow, I thought he was more defiant of the Catholic Church, but I was wrong. This book encompasses more than just his problems with the Catholic Church,  but it is his scientific discoveries and how they clashed with Church teaching that are so thought provoking.

If your interested in learning more about Galileo and his battle with the Church over correct belief in science and the arguments and tactics used in this fight, then you should read this book. You will also get to learn more about his daughter and the life she lived.


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