Galileo’s Daughter – A Drama of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel

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,

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