Galileo’s Daughter

A Review by Alan Goss

Galileo’s Daughter
Dava Sobel, Fourth Estate Ltd.

This book, skilfully researched and written in clear elegant prose leaves one lasting impression on the reader: through all the passions and turmoils of those times both Galileo and his daughter were people who, in any age, nourish the human spirit.

Most chapters include a letter (or extracts), from Galileo's eldest daughter Virginia, to her father, both sharing a deep and abiding affection for each other until the latter's early death at age 34. Virginia, together with her sister Livia, both became nuns after entering the frugal Convent at San Matteo near Florence. Virginia's letters — she later became Sr. Marie Celeste — have a rather formal old-world style, always addressing her father as Sire and are a welcome respite from the flaccid, chatty emailese of the "info" age.

What is especially appealing about this book is the fine balance it achieves in describing the nuts and bolts of seventeenth century life — the domestic scene, the political and religious intrigues, the fearful bubonic plague, the rigours of life behind Convent walls — against the drama and complexities of Galileo's research, notably in astronomy, which led him to adopt the Copernican theory of the solar system. The centre of this system was the sun, not the earth, a theory which of course conflicted with that of holy scripture.

In 1633 Galileo was tried for heresy by the Holy office of the Inquisition, forced to recant under threat of torture and placed under house arrest. (His famous words, "nevertheless it — the earth — does move" are probably legendary). As the author says, "the suppression of science by religion ... the challenge of radical new discoveries to ancient beliefs, the struggle against intolerance for freedom of thought and speech ... on other process (in law) has ricocheted through history with more meanings, more consequences, more conjectures, more regrets." A few in high places in the Catholic Church did, however, give Galileo both physical and moral support, along with the faithful nuns at San Matteo. His forbidden books thereafter flourished on the Black Market, his name and fame spread over national frontiers to all parts of Europe.

This book and its gripping account of the Galileo affair leave lessons still to be heeded. Our concern for doctrinal correctness — some would say our obsession with it — is a blind alley, there are no doctrinal absolutes as the Catholic Church virtually admitted some centuries later when in 1992 Pope Paul II publically endorsed Galileo's philosophy. A creedless church, a healthy diversity of views, the right to challenge in vigorous debate, are prerequisites for that peace and unity we so often talk about and which paradoxically, always needs to be tried and tested. Galileo did that in 1633 and lost, but only for a while. His beloved daughter Virginia now lies next to him in their much visited tomb in a nameless coffin. The book's last sentence reads, "But still she is still there."