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Galileo’s Daughter: A Drama of Science, Faith and Love Paperback – 6 Nov 2009
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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 the letters into context. "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
'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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Sobel maintains and defends the man's dignity and reminds us that in observation, concept, theory, evidence and proof the was consistently accurate, in a period of human history when such things were rare or unheard of. In response to his critics and specifically those who campaigned to suppress his enlightening discoveries he argued robustly and with immense strength of character and courage. Despite long periods of personal suffering he dedicated his life to creating significant works, bringing mankind into a new era of understanding.
If all of that were not enough, Sobel throws open the door to 16th and 17th century life in a cloistered convent, a spiritual prison for non-marriable girls. The poverty and denial over a short period would test any modern sensibility, but these women spent their lives suffering and providing what little they had to share with other people. Sobel quotes the daughter's letters and reveals the devotion and love which somehow sustained both of them, and her own many talents.
I loved this book. Not a single sentence was irrelevant, every thread of context, every name, family lineage, outbreak of the plague, his books and works, the discoveries and innovation, it's all there to describe a life, a lifetime of a genius, the father of modern science. Her understanding of historical context is magnificent. It's a work of art.
The love of Galileo's daughter, Maria-Celeste, is clear from her writings to him which are a key feature of the book, and which rather wonderfully depict late 16th, early 17th, century convent life. But it is the life of Galileo, his genius in seeing and interpreting what others could not, and his enduring scientific legacy which are main features of this well written and interesting book.
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