Galileo's Daughter Summary
by Dava Sobel

Start Your Free Trial

Download Galileo's Daughter Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Galileo's Daughter Summary

Galileo's Daughter is the story of both Galileo and his wise and intelligent older daughter, Maria Celeste. One hundred and twenty letters from Maria to her famous father survive, and these are the basis of Maria's story.

Because Maria was illegitimate, Galileo put her in a cloistered Franciscan convent outside Florence when she was young. She became a nun and had to live in seclusion, never leaving the convent grounds. Also, since the convent was Franciscan, it had to survive on alms or charity: it could not make its own money and become wealthy, as some other religious communities, such as the Benedictines, did. This made life for Maria and her younger sister precarious, and the nuns sometimes went hungry. This financial situation made it all the more important for Maria to stay in close contact with her well-to-do father, whose donations were much needed.

Maria did what she could for her father. In addition to being an intelligent correspondent, she would sew him clothing, such as collars, and make him candied fruit.

The other prong of the book is the story of Galileo's rise to prominence as Europe's "superstar" scientist, the Albert Einstein of his generation. It focuses in particular on his determination to prove that the earth circled the sun. His observations through his telescope showed him this had to be the case. Nevertheless, it was counter-intuitive, as people could see with their own eyes that the sun seemed to cross the sky in a circle around the earth. Even his own friends thought he was crazy to pursue this reasoning, which butted up against both reason (they thought) and Church teaching. Interestingly, we learn that one of the things that hampered Galileo's construction of a strong argument for his theory was that gravity had not yet been discovered, so Galileo had no framework for expecting a bigger body like the sun to pull the earth into its orbit.

The book outlines Galileo's other scientific theories and his troubles with the Inquisition that led to him having to retract his theory that the earth revolved around the sun.

The book is fascinating reading, in outlining both the lack of power even an intelligent and talented woman like Maria Celeste had over her destiny and the struggles of a scientist in that era to prove his theories.


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)


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...

(The entire section is 2,301 words.)