Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel


Until I read this absolutely engaging book by Dava Sobel, I never realized what a giant man of science Galileo was.  The book weaves the story of Galileo’s life, most of it lived in dedicated devotion to science, while weaving in his personal life and specifically his very special relationship with his eldest daughter, Virginia, later recognized as Suor Maria Celeste, after she took vows as a cloistered nun.  Sobel translated infinite number of letters between the father and daughter and through that emerges a tender story of special bond they shared.  Galileo shared his science through the letters with his daughter.  Suor Maria Celeste was closed to the world, after she took her vows as a nun.  However, through the letters with her father, she experienced the outside world and the universe, that she also came to believe was made up of the heavens and the stars, with the sun at the center.  Suor Maria Celeste maintained the highest regard for her father, addressing him as “most respected sire”, and yet, she admonished him for not taking good care of himself.  She sent him medicines that she mixed inside the convent, sent him instructions on maintaining his household, advised Galileo on appropriate conduct with her other siblings, and in fact, took care of her father’s household with the help of others appointed for this task, when Galileo was detained by the Church, as punishment for his views of the sun centered universe.  Galileo in turn, never failed to fulfill all her desires.

Sobel also weaves in some history of the time.  She weaves in the story about the Florence of Medicis and the papal court in Rome, the utter and terrible devastation wreaked by the bubonic plague, and the Thirty Years’ War across Europe.  At times Galileo silenced himself about his favorite scientific pursuits that collided with the Church dogma; but he could not stay silent for long.  Galileo was able to reconcile his faith in God that guided his belief that “God had dictated the Holy Scriptures to guide men’s spirits”, with his faith in science that lead him to believe that “unraveling of the universe was left to humans as a challenge to their intelligence”.  Galileo stressed that “Bible was a book about how one goes to Heaven – not how Heaven goes”!  Suor Maria Celeste accepted this notion as well and she prayed for her father’s well being, longevity, and his success in his “just pursuits”.  Galileo could not tear himself away from his scientific pursuits.  His looking glass generated a huge buzz when people can look at the heavens through this telescope.

However, after being admonished and threatened by the church, Galileo gave up the telescope and went ahead and developed a compound microscope and reported observing “many many animals with great admiration” including the flea, the gnat, and the moth.  He contested Aristotalian physics that objects of different weights fall at different speeds with experiments.  He got a patent on an irrigation device that he invented, and he also became well recognized and greatly admired as an electrifying lecturer.  Galileo invented his first commercial scientific instrument in 1597, called a geometric and military compass, and then published a booklet for sale with the instrument.  Galileo differed with Aristotle logic about what made objects float in water with powerful evidence and scientific experiments, and then put his thoughts in a book called “Discourse on Bodies That Stay Atop Water or Move Within It”. After the release of his book “Starry Messenger”, Galileo gave up his insistence of sun-centered universe for a while, but the sale of his telescopes sky rocketed throughout Europe.  Outside Italy, Galileo’s beliefs about the universe, found acceptance.  And all through his teachings and many other scientific pursuits, Galileo found himself returning to his profound belief in sun centered universe.  Galileo continued to advance arguments that accurate science did not conflict with religion.

Copernicus was a man of science who made many accurate observations about the cosmos, but his observations were naked-eye observations.  Galileo’s invention of the telescope enabled him to look at the sky in detail.  However, he still could not prove the Copernical system by telescope alone.  Galileo turned to the idea of the tides to cement his case.  Galileo, who never traveled outside Italy, had studied reports of explorers.  But his roundabout explanation that tides cannot be accounted for without moving the earth did not constitute a solid explanation that the earth moved around the sun.  And besides his explanation for tides was wrong because the true cause of the tides is the rise and fall by the pull of the Moon, and Galileo lived in a universe without gravity.  But he continued to study and build a case that sun was at the center and the earth and other planets traveled around the sun.  He also flouted academic tradition by writing in Italian for the masses, instead of the Latin lingua franca, the language of the scholars.  In his book “The Assayer”, while avoiding the forbidden topic of the world systems, Galileo drew a distinction between his favorite experimental method to arrive at the truth, and the prevailing dependence on the received wisdom or majority opinion.

Finally, Galileo decided to write his book “The Dialogue”, addressing this very issue of the sun-centered universe.  Five hundred page book was written with grand gorgeous language, that was alternately poetic, didactic, reverent, irreverent, combative, and funny.  Four characters in the book had conversations about their beliefs and challenged the others and asked others to demonstrate their beliefs, at times with simple line drawings.  Suor Maria Celeste recopied his draft manuscript of the Dialogue.  While he awaited publication of the book and as plague ravaged the continent, Galileo worked on his invention of the pendulum clockAs Galileo was summoned to Rome to defend his crime against the church in writing his book, Suor Maria Celeste assumed responsibilities of overseeing his household affairs through the assigned caretakers, from inside the convent.  Suor Maria Celeste, with the help of other nuns, held night and day continuous prayers for Galileo’s freedom.  The eventual sentence convicted Galileo of heinous crimes and his book “Dialogue of Galileo Galilei” was prohibited by public edict.  Besides a period of formal imprisonment, he was instructed to pray, recite penitential psalms, and was instructed to entirely abandon the “false” opinion that the sun is the center of the world and immovable and earth is not the center of the same and that it moves.  Apparently, Galileo rose from his knees and is said to have muttered under his breath “But it still moves”.  Dialogue would remain on the index of forbidden books for nearly two hundred years.  But the black market trade around the banned book immediately led to increase in price and was sold and resold all over Europe, and subsequently translated in other languages.

While Galileo was detained in Rome as punishment, he revisited his ideas about motion.  While he disagreed with Aristotle again, he dropped all talk of why things moved and instead focused on how through painstaking observations and experiments.  Galileo’s book on “Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations” regarding motion was the foundation of Sir Issac Newton’s theory and laws of motion and universal gravitation.  Although Galileo had no idea if he would be allowed to publish another book, he began to work on his ideas on motion, using the same four characters that were in the book Dialogue.  However, the characters were now more tempered and in lieu of the sarcastic barbs and dramatic flares, they traded polite lines.  One of the character says, “Please observe gentlemen, how facts which at first seem improbable will, even on scant explanation, drop the cloak which has hidden them and stand forth in naked and simple beauty” and then goes on to demonstrate with simple and easy to understand metaphors on objects and motion.  Simplicio, the character that was more simplistic in his thinking, makes a genuine effort and in the end says, “I am satisfied”.  While acknowledging that his “pursuits were so well suited” to Galileo’s tastes, Suor Maria Celeste also expressed her fear of whether these characters would “meet the same luck as past ones”.

During his long period away from home during his detention in Rome, there were constant and emotional exchanges between him and his daughter.  Suor Maria Celeste also managed his household affairs adroitly.  Galileo was kind and faithful to his children’s mother and he was a kind and devoted father to his children.  Galileo also was a wonderful friend and he had life long friendships with renowned people.  His many well known friends included archbishops, ambassadors, philosophers, mathematicians, his students, his peers, the royal family members and many of his friends tried to make his life away from home easy and prayed for his freedom and petitioned the church for mercy.  Suor Maria Celeste also managed his social affairs and reminded him of the appropriate gifts to be arranged from his estate for his acquaintance’s daughter’s wedding, decided on the amount of wine from his estate to be sold off, at what price, and often summoned for his monetary help from his estate for the nuns’ needs and sometimes for her personal need.  Galileo also wrote a religious play and sent it to his daughter for performance by the nuns.  At this time, in 1593, Galileo also invented a rudimentary thermometer though it was perfected by Daniel Fahrenheit in 1714 by sealing mercury in glass.

Eventually, Galileo was allowed to return home and he could be closer to the convent which housed his daughters.  He was instructed to not receive visitors and not visit anyone except the convent, although many of his friends visited him.  Suor Maria Celeste fell gravely ill in a few years after his return.  Galileo walked every day to the convent, to be with her, but she did not recover, and passed away.  Galileo grieved deeply.  But once again science sustained him.  He resumed work on a new book on motion.  Through some inquiries, there ensued a multinational effort among his supporters to find a printer outside Italy, who could translate and safely publish his book “Two New Sciences”.  It was printed in Holland and Galileo himself received his copy after months.  During this time, even as Galileo was loosing his eyesight, he continued to observe the sky and made significant observations about the moon that were confirmed only in 1959 when unmanned Russian Luna 3 spacecraft radioed the first views of the Moon’s far side from the lunar orbit.

Galileo had begun new book with his four characters, dictating the concepts to his student who had come to live with the old man.  But alas it was too late.  Galileo passed away in 1642 and his friend Cardinal Barberini said, his passing away “touches not just Florence but the whole world, and the “whole century which from this divine man has received more splendor than from almost all the other ordinary philosophers” and that his sublime intellect “will serve all posterity as guide in search of truth”.  I took the time to write this extensive summary because as I read the book, I became awed by Galileo an a kind and gentle human being and by his contribution to experimental method, to truth, and to science.  This summary is for those who may not take the time to read the book.   My hope is that you will still come to know of Galileo and if you enjoy the review then you will pick up this fascinating book to read.  In my opinion, everyone should know about such a great man and his impressive contributions in the realm of science.

Galileo was a giant of a man and perhaps one of the greatest scientists who ever lived.  He had an unquenchable curiosity.  When in prison, he once wrote, “I have in mind a great many miscellaneous problems and questions”.  He hypothesized and theorized about scientific concepts but he also went beyond theory in his pursuit of truth.  To obtain greater clarify and proof, he frequently conducted experiments and demonstrated through his engineering inventions like the telescope, the microscope, and the compass, scientific laws of motion, astronomy, and other scientific concepts.  Galileo had an ability to take his concepts from development stage all the way to commercialization.  He obtained patents to protect his inventions.  He understood marketing and sales strategy and at one point he tacked on a type of “pocket guide” for sale with his invention of the military compass.  Galileo was an academician, a mentor, professor, teacher, writer and his eloquence and expressiveness were incredible.  Nor did he lack wit.  He was a man born in the wrong place, at wrong time in history.  And many of his wonderful friends including his daughter recognized it and clearly loved and admired this brilliant, kind, and generous man and a brilliant scientist who dedicated his life to the pursuit of truth.              

Galileo

Galileo (Photo credit: Rhubarble)

Galileo Galilei's Sector

Galileo Galilei’s Sector (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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  1. #1 by Amit on April 25, 2011 - 6:48 am

    Very well-written, Darshana! I will look forward to many more like this.

    – Amit

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