Dava Sobel’s first book, the highly acclaimed Longitude (1995), told the story of John Harrison. The subtitle of that book, The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, celebrates the little-known eighteenth century Englishman who, by developing the chronometer, finally enabled the accurate determination of longitude. Galileo Galilei was in fact among Harrison’s illustrious predecessors who had wrestled unsuccessfully with that problem. Sobel’s similarly expansive subtitle of Galileo’s Daughter provides an indication of her fresh perspective on the life of the great Italian scientist. It is actually a dual life, that of Galileo and the first of his three natural children. He placed both of his daughters in the Convent of San Mateo in Arcetri, near Florence—the elder, Virginia, in 1613 when she was thirteen. Three years later, she took vows in the Order of the Poor Clares, and remained in the convent until her death in 1634. This girl, whom her father acknowledged as highly intelligent, good, and devoted to him, took the name of Suor (Sister) Maria Celeste, thus honoring her astronomer father as well as the Virgin Mary.
Sobel merely skims the first half century of Galileo’s life, and proceeds to highlight this young woman’s role during two later decades that proved very difficult for Galileo. In 1616, when he was fifty-two, he published his work on sunspots, which occasioned a relatively brief investigation by Roman Catholic officialdom for its unsettling evidence in favor of the heliocentric theory of Nicolaus Copernicus—unsettling because of its seeming contradictions of Holy Scripture. However, it was not until seventeen years had passed that the repercussions of this work occasioned his famous trial and conviction for having held and taught the Copernican doctrine. Plagued by illness and advancing years, Galileo was relegated to house arrest.
Throughout this period Galileo had his champions in Italy and throughout Europe, but none more steadfast than Suor Maria Celeste.
To develop this relationship of father and daughter, Sobel relies on 124 letters from her to him. The author translates and inserts a number of them strategically into her narrative. Galileo’s letters to Suor Maria have not survived, probably because circumstances of convent life did not permit. Although the letters cast more light on Suor Maria’s resourceful dedication to a particularly poor community of Poor Clares than on the scientist himself, they reveal aspects of his character little developed in previous biographies. He emerges not only as great scientist but as loving and caring father as well. She was obliged to beg, reluctantly yet often, for his financial support to supply her own and her congregation’s most basic needs. It is agreeable to contemplate this great thinker, in the midst of trying and often dismaying encounters with religious authorities, responding to her pleas unfailingly and unstintingly.
Support, however, was a two-way street. Suor Maria Celeste washed and mended his shirts and aprons; she managed, through emissaries, details of his nearby villa when he was away; she copied documents for him in a stylish hand; she sent him herbal medicines of her own concoction to mitigate the various illnesses to which he was subject. Furthermore, she encouraged him in his tribulations. She obviously could not imagine the extent to which the world at large failed to share her ardent devotion and admiration for her father. As a consequence, she did not realize the magnitude of the ordeal of his trial in 1633. She knew he was detained for months, but she does not appear to have suspected that he remained under house arrest both during the trial and thereafter. Even after he was allowed to return to his home at Arcetri, he was never again a free man. He was restricted in what he could write, whom he could see, and even with whom he could correspond. Nevertheless, he had throughout his ordeal his daughter’s unflinching respect, encouragement, and consolation.
Galileo’s teaching career had begun in Pisa in 1589 and continued later at Padua. Attracted by both the physics of motion and the heavens above, Galileo worked on and vastly improved the “spyglass” that astronomers hitherto had used; a colleague was responsible for renaming it. Using his new telescope, Galileo made detailed drawings of the moon, then shifted his attention to the planets and discovered the moons of Jupiter. Publishing the results of his astronomical research in a book called Sidereus Nuncius (1610), translated as The Starry Messenger (1880), he attracted the attention of Cosimo de’...
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