16.5.09

Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel: Book Review

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love by Dava Sobel

Galileo's Daughter is a book to which I can hardly do justice in a review. In brief, this book is part biography, part historiography of science, and part political intrigue. Despite its very different narrative structure from Longitude, it is also pure Sobel. 

Though the life, from birth through 95 years post-death, of Galileo Galilee is traced - often in delightful detail - one never has the sense of reading a strict accounting of that life. From Galileo's earliest years chaffing at his father's reins, it is clear that this is an individual destined to find his own place in the universe, and even with the foreknowledge of what that place will be, the drama of the story is gripping. 

Unlike the typical biography where we may only know a person's beginnings and what makes him biography-worthy, much of Galileo's life is known to the average reader prior to page one. The sectarian political climate permeating the whole of Galileo's career is common knowledge. Perhaps somewhat less so is the gentle humility, the honest desire to be a good Catholic permeating the whole of this same career. The inherent conflicts raised between the man's Church and his science are easy to discern.

Galileo's Daughter is a beautiful read for two reasons overriding all others. To begin, Sobel has done a masterful job in selecting from existing manuscripts - primarily published - of Galileo's as well as personal correspondence between Galileo and others in crafting this story. Letters written to Galileo by his daughter Virginia (Suor Maria Celeste as she is known once entering the convent) and letters written to and by Galileo as he corresponds with a variety of other individuals pepper the narrative with an intensely personal flavor. In one letter, Virginia writes to her father, "I enclose herewith a little composition, which, aside from expressing to you the extent of our need, will also give you the excuse to have a hearty laugh at the expense of my foolish writing..." Here is a daughter writing to her father, not a faceless young woman four hundred years gone writing to a legend. As the book opens with a letter from Virginia, Galileo is at once transformed for the reader into a man like any other.

In part due to Sobel's skillful selection of original source material for this book, Galileo's Daughter excels for a second reason. The historigraphy of science, of Galileo's incalculable impact on science, is deftly rendered. The interplay between religion, social convention, academia, and science itself are accessible to the reader precisely because they are so personal for this man. Galileo's frustrations given near-constant skirmishes with the Roman Catholic Church over his support of the Coperinican heliocentric view of the universe, which he did not consider to be at odds with Scripture, are evident in his correspondence. Virginia's fear for her father's position with the church and in the community are just as evident in her letters to him. The progress of a world out of darkness and into the light of the Northern Italian Renaissance is removed from static textbook teaching and made personal for the reader by virtue of the agonizing toll it took on a man whose name we toss about with such cavalier use today.

One isn't supposed to give away the ending in a review, but everyone knows Galileo died under house arrest, having been forced to recant his position on heliocentrism by the Church or face excommunication. I've never been quite able to square that with my conscience, but Sobel helps a bit. There is a twist to the tale, one worthy of both the twin loves of Galileo's life and the author's skill in weaving the threads of this story into a tapestry that brought tears to this reader's eyes at the end.

Go. Read. As always, Sobel is worth it.

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