The Books: “Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love” (Dava Sobel)

Next book in my science and philosophy shelf:

GalileosDaughter.jpgAnother book by Dava Sobel – this one called Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. A marvelous book. It tells the story of Galileo’s life, as well as tells the story of the life of his illegitimate (but beloved) daughter, whom he put into a convent as a young girl. She had to renounce the world … yet she and her father remained devoted to one another (even through his trial/inquisition). His letters to her have been lost, sadly, but all of her letters are still around, and were sitting in a library in Rome, I think, collecting dust. Dava Sobel, researching some other project, heard that there was this huge archive of letters from “Suor Marie Celeste” – Galileo’s daughter – and they had never been translated into English. Sobel sensed that there was a huge story there, one that had yet to be told, so she went to Italy, translated the letters herself, and wrote this wonderful book. Part science, part biography, part epistolary memoir, it gives an insider’s view (through her incredible letters to her famous father) of that world. One of the things I find most moving about her letters to him, is that she never doubted his faith, at a time when he was being treated like a heretic. His discoveries about the universe didn’t shake HIS faith, and didn’t shake her faith either. Even though she lived in a cloister, she still was aware of his scientific explorations, and discoveries … and never once did she question him, or back off from him. It can’t have been easy for her since she was a nun in the Church that was persecuting him. Judging from her letters, she remained steadfastly supportive, saying that his discoveries merely expanded her own love for God, since he obviously was so much more powerful and imaginative than previously thought. Extraordinary.

It’s a really interesting book.

EXCERPT FROM Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love by Dava Sobel.

Galileo’s daughter, born of his long illicit liaison with the beautiful Marina Gamba of Venice, entered the world in the summer heat of a new century, on August 13, 1600 — the same year the Dominican friar Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome for insisting, among his many heresies and blasphemies, that the Earth traveled around the Sun, instead of remaining motionless at the center of the universe. In a world that did not yet know its place, Galileo would engage this same cosmic conflict with the Church, trading a dangerous path between the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic and the heavens he revealed through his telescope.

Galileo christened his daughter Virginia, in honor of his “cherished sister”. But because he never married Virginia’s mother, he deemed the girl herself unmarriageable. Soon after her thirteenth birthday, he placed her at the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri, where she lived out her life in poverty and seclusion.

Virginia adopted the name Maria Celeste when she became a nun, in a gesture that acknowledged her father’s fascination with the stars. Even after she professed a life of prayer and penance, she remained devoted to Galileo as though to a patron saint. The doting concern evident in her condolence letter [on the occasion of Galileo’s sister’s death] was only to intensify over the ensuing decade as her father grew old, fell more frequently ill, pursued his singular research nevertheless, and published a book that brought him to trial by the Holy Office of the Inquisition…

Thus Suor Maria Celeste consoled Galileo for being left alone in his world, with daughters cloistered in the separate world of nuns, his son not yet a man, his former mistress dead, his family of origin all deceased or dispersed.

Galileo, now fifty-nine, also stood boldly alone in his worldview, as Suor Maria Celeste knew from reading the books he wrote and the letters he shared with her from colleagues and critics all over Italy, as well as from across the continent beyond the Alps. Although her father had started his career as a professor of mathematics, teaching first at Pisa and then at Padua, every philosopher in Europe tied Galileo’s name to the most startling series of astronomical discoveries ever claimed by a single individual.

In 1609, when Suor Maria Celeste was still a child in Padua, Galileo had set a telescope in the garden behind his house and turned it skyward. Never-before-seen stars leaped out of the darkness to enhance familiar constellations; the nebulous Milky Way resolved into a swath of densely packed stars; mountains and valleys pockmarked the storied perfection of the Moon; and a retinue of four attendance bodies traveled regularly around Jupiter like a planetary system in miniature.

“I render infinite thanks to God,” Galileo intoned after those nights of wonder, “for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries.”

The newfound worlds transformed Galileo’s life. He won appointment as chief mathematician and philosopher to the grand duke in 1610, and moved to Florence to assume his position at the court of Cosimo de Medici. He took along wtih him his two daughters, then ten and nine years old, but he left Vincenzio, who was only four when greatness descended on the family, to live a while longer in Padua with Marina.

Galileo found himself lionized as another Columbus for his conquests. Even as he attained the height of his glory, however, he attracted enmity and suspicion. For instead of opening a distant land dominated by heathens, Galileo trespassed on holy ground. Hardly had his first spate of findings stunned the populace of Europe before a new wave followed: He saw dark spots creeping continuously across the face of the Sun, and “the mother of loves,” as he called the planet Venus, cycling through phases from full to crescent, just as the Moon did.

All his observations lent credence to the unpopular Sun-centered universe of Nicolaus Copernicus, which had been introduced over half a century previously, but foundered on lack of evidence. Galileo’s efforst provided the beginning of a proof. And his flamboyant style of promulgating his ideas — sometimes in bawdy humorous writings, sometimes loudly at dinner parties and staged debates — transported the new astronomy from the Latin Quarters of the universities into the public arena. In 1616, a pope and a cardinal inquisitor reprimanded Galileo, warning him to curtail his forays into the supernal realms. The motions of the heavenly bodies, they said, having been touched upon in the Psalms, the Book of Joshua, and elsewhere in the Bible, were matters best left to the Holy Fathers of the Church.

Galileo obeyed their orders, silencing himself on the subject. For seven cautious years he turned his efforts to less perilous pursuits, such as harnessing his Jovian satellites in the service of navigation, to help sailors discover their longitude at sea. He studied poetry and wrote literary criticism. Modifying his telescope, he developed a compound microscope. “I have observed many tiny animals with great admiration,” he reported, “among which the flea is quite horrible, the gnat and the moth very beautiful; and with great satisfaction I have seen how flies and other little animals can walk attached to mirrors, upside down.”

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