by Dava Sobel (Walker & Co. 1999; ISBN 0-8027-1343-2)
Having enjoyed Dava Sobel’s previous book, Longitude, I opened this biography of Galileo Galilei with high expectations, and it did not disappoint. In addition to the meticulous retelling of Galileo’s life, discoveries, and inventions, Sobel has chosen to shine a light on the special relationship between the great philosopher and his elder daughter Suor Maria Celeste (born Virginia Galilei), who spent most of her short life in the Convent of San Matteo, in the town of Arcetri, outside of Florence. Suor Maria Celeste had a fine intellect and was by all accounts a virtuous and kind young woman who adored her father above all else. Despite his difficulties with the Roman Inquisition, the banning of his books, his detainment (first in Rome, then in Tuscany and finally in his own house in Arcetri), she never doubted his goodness or rightness about natural phenomena such as the Earth’s motion.
What sets Galileo’s Daughter apart from other biographies of Galileo is the inclusion of many of the letters which Suor Maria Celeste wrote to her father (his replies have been lost), which the author translated herself. In the letters, we read about the many services that she performed for her father (from sewing his lace collars to copying his manuscripts to managing his affairs when he was away), the many requests she made of him (for money and ingredients for preparing foods and medicines, often not for herself but for others–including him), and most of all the great love and respect that she bore him.
When Suor Maria Celeste died of dysentery at the age of only 34, Galileo, who was then 70 years old, was overwhelmed with grief. When he himself died eight years later, his student and companion Vincenzio Viviani, unable to bury Galileo as he wished due to papal decree, secretly buried him together with his beloved daughter. Eventually, both sets of remains were re-interred together in a grand monument in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence.
Some things I did not realize about Galileo:
- He was in poor health for most of his life.
- He lost his sight in his old age.
- He remained a devout Catholic despite all that he suffered at the hands of the Church and despite realizing that the Pope was not infallible.
- Many of his friends never deserted him despite his vilification by Pope Urban VIII and the Roman Inquisition.
- Einstein considered him the father of modern experimental science (pg. 326, Note).