Galileo's Daughter

by Dava Sobel

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

Three themes leap out from Galileo's Daughter.

First, women in seventeenth-century Italy had very little power in this heavily patriarchal culture. Maria Celeste and her sister, who became Sister Arcangela, were put into the cloistered convent of San Matteo at young ages without being consulted as to their desires. This had nothing to do with religious calling and everything to do with making life more convenient for Galileo. While he went to effort and expense to legitimize his son, he did not want to go to that expense for his daughters by setting them up with dowries to make them marriageable. It was easier and cheaper to put them in a convent. In Galileo's defense, as Sobel shows, many, many Florentine women went into convents, so it was a socially acceptable way to deal with "excess" women. Nevertheless, what amounted to, essentially, a life prison sentence with no chance of parole visited on two innocent girls would today seem like a human rights violation. We feel for Maria Celeste and her sister, trapped in such a situation. We admire Maria for how sensibly she dealt with her fate and for her attempts to help her sister and make sure they were not forgotten by their father. Maria's sister, Arcangela, not surprisingly, suffered from mental illness and did not cope with the same strength and patience that Maria was able to exhibit.

A related theme is that a man can be a great scientist, full of insight about the galaxy, and yet blind and lacking in empathy in how he treats those closest to him. Although Galileo was acting within cultural norms for his period, this book, written for modern audience, can't help but shock readers. Written dispassionately, it lets the facts speak for themselves: a great thinker devalued women enough to put his own daughters into a poor convent with precarious finances. One comes away wishing Galileo had had a "telescope" in which to see into his daughters' plights similar to the one he used to discern Jupiter's moons.

Third, the book shows the degree to which science is influenced by politics. Pope Urban VIII, formerly a friend of Galileo's, was personally offended by Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. More importantly, he was under heavy pressure because the Thirty Years' War was going badly for the Holy Roman Empire and the Papal States. This war was supposed to be a slam-dunk against the Lutheran heretical states, and the Roman Catholic world was embarrassed by its inability to prevail. One theory concerned God punishing Catholic religious impurity, and the Pope was under pressure to root out heretics. What better prize than taking down a superstar like Galileo? Therefore, although our modern narrative is a simplistic one of a superstitious and backward church opposing science purely on religious grounds, Sobel shows the complexity of the political world in which science must operate.

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