Galileo's Daughter: A Drama of Science, Faith and Love

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9780001056121: Galileo's Daughter: A Drama of Science, Faith and Love

Galileo’s Daughter is the story of the relationship between the great Italian scientist Galileo and his daughter, by the author of Longitude.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was the foremost scientist of his day. His inventions and discoveries were heralded around the world. His telescopes allowed him to reveal a new reality in the heavens and to defend the astounding proposition that the earth actually moves around the Sun. For this belief was tried for heresy and threatened with torture. Galileo is brought to life here as never before – a man boldly compelled to explain the truths he discovered, human in his frailties and faith, devoted to his family and, especially, to his daughter. Since there could be no hope of marriage for his illegitimate daughter Galileo placed her, aged thirteen, in the convent of San Mateo in Arcetri. She was perhaps her father’s equal in brilliance, industry and sensibility, and she proved to be his greatest source of strength through his most difficult years. Dava Sobel reveals the short life of Sister Marie Celeste through the 120 letters the nun wrote to her father from 1623 to her death ten years later from exposure, malnutrition and a broken heart at the age of 33 years. The letters reveal a loving relationship, a mutual passion for science and a unique insight into early modern history, all woven into Dava Sobel’s compelling narrative. Galileo’s Daughter tells the story of the most dramatic collision in history between science and religion. Sobel illuminates an entire era, when one man fought to reconcile the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic with the heavens he revealed through his telescope. Galileo’s Daughter is a rich and unforgettable story.

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Review:

Galileo Galilei is famous for many things: for his science (Einstein called him the "father of modern physics"); for his flamboyant style (he wrote in Italian not Latin, enlivened texts with rough humour, argued loudly in staged debates) and for his harsh treatment by the Catholic Church. What's less well known are the details of his private life--a life that, as Dava Sobel points out in Galileo's Daughter, was just as complex as the scientist's public life. Galileo had three illegitimate children; the book's title refers to the oldest, Virginia, later Suor Maria Celeste (she took the name in acknowledgement of her father's fascination with the stars). Unable to marry because of her illegitimate status, Virginia entered a convent at 13 and maintained a lifelong correspondence with her father. Sobel has translated Virginia's surviving letters for the first time and, combining those letters, commentary, and gorgeous illustrations, she sets out in Galileo's Daughter to illuminate a different side of Galileo, the father deeply committed to his daughter and to her faith.

Virginia's letters are tender, witty and intelligent. They are crammed with details of day-to-day life in Florence: "The broad beans are set out to dry and their stalks fed for breakfast to the little mule, who has become so haughty that she refuses to carry anyone." Sobel's commentaries brilliantly help to put into contextual the letters. "Most of Suor Maria Celeste's letters travelled in the pocket of a messenger or in a basket laden with laundry, sweetmeats or herbal medicines." But life in the convent was not idyllic. Virginia was surrounded by women in various states of mental collapse and her letters describing those collapses are vivid and at times terrifying. The bubonic plague, too, affected the nuns just as it did the outside world.

But what emerges most strikingly from these letters is the degree to which Virginia supported her father. Suor Maria Celeste may never have left the convent but in her letters she accompanies her father through physical and intellectual trials. We see her planning her brother's wedding (which she can't attend) and copying out her father's manuscripts. The relationship between father and daughter "is not a tale of abuse or rejection or intentional stifling of abilities", writes Sobel. "Rather, it is a love story, a tragedy and a mystery." --Simon Ings

Review:

'Dava Sobel has done it again. The bad news for her imitators is that this is the new Longitude' -- Mail On Sunday

This wonderful book blends brilliant storytelling with an elegant, modest take on the history of science, that impossible subject which asks you to sift ambiguous evidence, evaluate the implications of theory, and write the lot up subtly enough to satisfy both historians and scientists...Her delighted respect and sympathy for the minds of the people whose lives she tells shines through all the complexities of the story and the science. And her very last, very short sentence brings tears to the eyes. -- Independent

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