Thursday, July 16, 2009

Galileo's Daughter; A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love, by Dava Sobel

Galileo was always one of those "historical figures" that got breezed over in history, basically held up as one more example of a brilliant mind who was slapped down by the Catholic Inquisition, with a little note about some discovery he made and then never given a second thought except in a list of discoverers that developed the scientific compendium of knowledge we have today. Phew.

This book fleshes out the "historical figure" into a curious, driven, quick thinking human being, with a family situation unlike anything I could fathom. Galileo never married. His mistress bore him three children before she married another man. The first two were girls, and when they were young, they lived with him for a time. When he felt that one of his books would receive no small bit on controversy, he finagled they entrance into a convent, hoping to shelter them from the possible fallout. The fact that marrying off illigitimate daughters to good husbands was next to impossible was also a factor, but he had to really ask for some favors to get them admitted before the proper age of 16. The eldest would take the name Suor Maria Celeste, some think in honor of Galileo's accomplishment in refining the telescope. We glimpse some of Galileo's life through her letters to him, which he meticulously saved, wrote notes on. Suor Celeste saved his letters to her, and they filled up boxes but, when she died, the Mother Abbess decided that the fact that Galileo was under house arrest and was on the Pope's censured list made preserving the letters dangerous and had them burned; a lost opportunity to see Galileo in the role of a father.

Once she entered the convent, Galileo either had to visit her and speak to her through an iron grate, or write to her. Much of his life he was working on his studies, currying royal favor for patronage, and wading through the waves that broke when his controversial books were published. Only for a short time, before his Dialogue was banned by the Inquisition, was he able to live close to the convent. Celeste shows her devotion to her father in many ways in her letters. She asks after his health, makes him pills and lotions for his ailments and even bleaches his collars and linens for him. Galileo sends her money for medicines for sick nuns, follows for suggestions for helping his third child, a son and her brother, when it's time for him to purchase a house for his new family, and also sends her manuscripts on occasion for her to copy in her script.

The book explains, without getting too mathematical, about the principles in the books he wrote that infuriated members of the Inquisition. Despite friends in the clergy and the royalty of Tuscany, Florence, and Rome, Galileo can't escape the censure of the Inquisition. He ended up in perpetual house arrest for the remaining few years of his life, ordered not to speak with people about his ideas, or write about them. It could have been worse, he could have been kept in a damp prison for life. Being 69 years old at the time of his trial, there may have been some reasoning that he would die soon anyway.

One of the bitter ends of the story is that just as Celeste hears that Galileo is finally coming home after more than a year after the trial, she comes down with dysentery, and within days of his coming home, she succumbs. Galileo's grief was palpable and tendered a fiercer blow, I think, than anything the Pope could have done to him. She was one of his confidantes, and probably his most attentive child, despite her confinement.

Fittingly, she is buried with him, although it took decades of wrangling by some of his students to get him a proper tomb.

A thoughtful book. You don't need to be a scientist to enjoy it. Please do. You can find a reading group guide here.

1 comment:

  1. I LOVED this book! I have not read a Dava Sobel book I haven't loved however.


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