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Galileo Galilei was one of the most influential scientists of the modern era. His discovery and development of telescopes and his study of the cosmos revolutionized scientific understanding of the day. But his discoveries and inferences were disliked by the dominant religious institutions of his time, for they challenged the Christian theocratic view of the Universe and its origins.
As a result, Galileo was subject to threat, coercion, torture and ultimately confinement for a significant portion of his later life. In some ways these controversial aspects of Galileo’s life have overshadowed his brilliant scientific discoveries.
Dana Sobels’ book titled Galileo’s Daughter: A Drama of Science, Faith and Love makes accessible to the reader key facts about the life of Galileo. The primary source material for the book is the compendium of letters written by Sister Maria Celeste, the eldest of Galileo’s daughters.
The reciprocal letters sent by Galileo to Celeste were lost or destroyed and hence the author faced the challenge of reconstructing a coherent dialogue on the basis of one person’s responses. But this challenge is overcome due largely to the brilliant articulation of ideas, views and facts by Sister Celeste. As Sobels alludes to in the book, Celeste was the most intimate of daughters and the one who inherited her father’s intellect and perceptiveness.
Although the 120 odd letters written by Sister Celeste to her illustrious father is the primary source material, the book is far more than a collection of these personal exchanges. That is, the letters serve only as a backdrop to understanding the social, political, theological and scientific institutions of the time and helps place Galileo’s personal and professional struggles in context. The book is structured in such a way that excerpts from these letters are interspersed by author’s commentary and analysis of them. Some times, Sobel takes up a commonly understood/misunderstood fact or feeling and refines it so as to bring a nuanced understanding to the subject matter.
The book also deserves special appreciation for its unbiased appraisal of the Catholic Church’s antagonistic role in Galileo’s life. In the last century, several books have dealt with the personal and scientific life of Galileo; and they mostly tend to present the Catholic Church as a rigid, opportunistic and authoritarian body that tried to rule by force. For example, Mario Biagioli’s 1993 book titled Galileo, Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism and James Brodrick’s biography titled Galileo: The Man, His Work, His Misfortunes portray the Catholic Church in negative light. What is different in Sobel’s approach, is the lack of scathe and hostility of the religious establishment of the day. Instead, the author tries to place the events in their social, political and historical milieu. While this may come across as espousal of moral relativism on part of the author, she is only suggesting that the harsh treatment meted out to Galileo was not exceptional in the socio-political climate in which he lived. As Richard Neuhaus notes in his review of the book, contrary to being polemical about the actions of the Catholic Church, “Sobel, who is Jewish, is at pains to depict the complexity of seventeenth-century politics, religion, science, and art–all encompassed within vibrant Christian faith, and not least the vibrant faith of Galileo and his daughter, Sister Maria Celeste”. (Neuhaus, 2000, p.76)
The task of reconstructing circumstances on the basis of Sister Celeste’s letters is not without its drawbacks. For example, it is inevitable that a daughter’s view of her father’s temperament and personality is likely to be distorted and uncritical. So, one gets the impression that author Dava Sobel underplays Galileo’s personality characteristics, probably due to the limitations imposed by her sources. We can learn this by comparing with another popular biography of Galileo, namely ‘Galileo, A Life’ – written by James Reston and published in 1994. Contrastingly, here we find an alternative portrayal of Galileo’s personality, whereby the author suggests that the ordeals suffered by Galileo could have been mitigated had the latter showed tact and restraint. But despite shortcomings such as these, Sobel’s book succeeds in accurately depicting the conflict between the independent thinker and the religious authority. For example,
“Not only does she underscore Galileo’s faith, but she portrays how divided was ecclesiastical opinion toward him, and how his chief enemies were in the academic establishment of philosophers who refused to accommodate his demonstration of the Copernican insight into the structure of the universe”. (The Washington Times, 2003, p.A19)
The warmth of the relationship between Galileo and Sister Maria Celeste is all the more touching once you consider that the latter is an illegitimate daughter. Indeed, she and her younger sister were deprived of security and respectability due to their illegitimacy. The reason why they both had to be put in a convent when they were hardly teenagers is due to the stigma associated with their illegitimacy. It would not have surprised historians and scholars if the two daughters estranged themselves from their father due to his failings in that role. Seen in this background, the love and compassion conveyed through Sister Maria Celeste’s letters are all the more inspiring. In this context, the following observation is quite valid: “The book is chiefly the very human and humanizing story of Maria Celeste and her father, a moving account of adversity borne with grace. It is, all in all, a beautiful story beautifully told.” (The Washington Times, 2003, p. A19) The book also brings into sharp focus, the significance of personal support in keeping Galileo afloat during his most turbulent times.
Reading through the book, one gets the feeling that Maria Celeste is as much the protagonist as her illustrious father. Life in the convent in which Maria Celeste stayed for most of her life was very harsh. While convent is a place for spiritual consolation, there is no escaping the emotional and physical deprivations that the lifestyle entails. Added to this, the convent is totally dependent on donations from patrons, which can be unreliable. These uncertainties and attendant ordeals seemed to have strengthened Sister Celeste’s religious faith, that she poignantly notes in a letter that the “reward that awaits us, after the brevity and darkness of the winter of the present life, when at last we enter the clarity and happiness of the eternal spring of Heaven.”(Celeste, as quoted in Sobel, 2000, p.23) Despite this tone of optimism, we do find a tinge of melancholy when she states in another letter – “for I am yearning to enter the other life, as every day I see more plainly the vanity and misery of this one: In death I would stop offending blessed God, and I would hope to be able to pray ever more effectively, Sire, for you”. (Celeste, as quoted in Sobel, 2000, p.31) And in a matter of four years since this was written, when Sister Celeste was only 34 years of age, she succumbed to dysentery. This strengthens the contention that Sister Celeste is as much the protagonist in the book as Galileo is. And credit must be given to the Dava Sobel for masterfully weaving the narrative so that it retains this ambiguity. Whether it is deliberate or not is a moot question that would have little bearing on the overall literary excellence of the book.
The book is quite useful as a teaching/study material. For science classes, this book will not be first choice, for it lacks in scientific rigour requisite for graduate level courses. Since the emphasis of this biography is on the personal, social, political and historical aspects of the great Italian scientist, I would recommend it as part of course material for graduate programs in humanities. It is unsuitable for a high-school readership, but could be included in the reading lists for graduate and post-graduate programs under all branches of humanities and social sciences. Education and teacher training programs can also include this book, for one could learn a lot from the authorship of both Sister Celeste and Dava Sobel.
But beyond its utility within the academia, the book is also accessible to the general readership. While Dava Sobel is not formally trained in astronomy, she served as the scientific reporter to the New York Times. And so she succeeds in distilling prominent scientific discoveries and inventions of Galileo for a general readership. The same could be held up as a drawback, for the book doesn’t delve deeper into Galileo’s scientific work as some other biographies do. For example, Stillman Drake’s 1990 book titled ‘Galileo: Pioneer Scientist’ is a better resource for understanding Galileo’s scientific life.