Book review: Galileo's Daughter

Steph Bevan 31 Aug 20

Galileo’s Daughter is a beautiful and well researched account of the renowned and legendary scientist Galileo Galilei and his daughter, Suor Maria Celeste. It is a little-known fact that Galileo had an illegitimate daughter who was an intellectual equal to Galileo and just as crucial to scientific and religious history as he was. The book is structured around a series of letters written by Suor Maria Celeste discovered amongst Galileo’s possessions (his responses either lost or destroyed). The author, Dava Sobel, uses these letters to provide an intimate snapshot of the loving relationship between Galileo and his daughter before describing the events and accounts that surround each letter being written.

Who was she?

'And another thing I ask of you, please, is to send me your book, the one that has just been published, so that I may read it, as I am longing to see what is says' (pg 124) S. M. Celeste

Suor Maria Celeste (born Virginia Galilei) was the eldest daughter of Galileo Galilei, who, due to her illegitimacy, was placed in a convent in her early teenage years. A few years later, when taking her vows, she chose the name ‘Celeste’ to reflect her own fascination with the stars. Although now tied to a life of prayer and poverty, she continued to have a regular communication with her father and siblings (her sister also living alongside her in the convent). Through the book, you discover an incredible woman of faith and science who prayerfully and vocally supports her father’s theories, regularly requesting a glimpse at his correspondences amongst the philosophers of the time.

This book challenges the historical stereotype that only men were scientifically literate and solely played a part in scientific history of the last few hundred years. Although restricted by cultural expectations of women at the time, Suor Maria Celeste should go down in the history books as a remarkable woman of science. Her and her father’s faith also challenges the stereotype that logic and reason are incompatible with a faith in a creator.

The personal journey of the relationship between science and faith

'My dearest lord father, now is the time to avail yourself more than ever of that prudence which the Lord God has granted you, bearing these blows... and since you by virtue of your vast experience, can lay claim to full cognisance of the fallacy and instability of everything in this miserable world, you must not make too much of these storms, but rather take hope that they will soon subside and transform themselves from troubles into many satisfactions' (pg 292-293) S. M. Celeste

The discussions had by Galileo and Suor Maria Celeste demonstrate an incredibly relatable journey that many scientists of faith have had through their career. Galileo regularly seeks prayer and comfort from Suor Maria Celeste as he wrestles with philosophers and members of the Catholic Church about his observations of the sky.  Suor Maria Celeste has a compassion and humility that we could all learn from when taking part in debates and discussions with colleagues. Sometimes it can be a lonely experience for scientists of faith, but Suor Maria Celeste provides encouragement for many who are themselves in this position.

Historical Misconceptions of Galileo and the Church

I can only imagine, Sire, what a magnificent letter you must have written to His Holiness [Pope Urban VIII], to congratulate him on the occasion of his reaching this exalted rank, and, because I am more than a little bit curious, I yearn to see a copy of this letter, if it would please you to show it……..’ (pg 102) S. M. Celeste

It is a common misconception that Galileo was an enemy of the Church. Far from it, Galileo (a man of faith himself) was a good friend with a number of cardinals at the Vatican and had regular audiences with a succession of popes during his lifetime. The letters divulge the true nature of his faith as Suor Maria Celeste responds graciously to his worries. The narrative described in this book outlines that poor communication, misunderstandings and politics led to what is now seen as one of the biggest fallouts between science and faith in history. Through reading this book you discover that it was not a battle between science and faith but instead a political battle to keep the control of the interpretation of the Bible at the highest level. Even though this escalates to a trial with the church it is often forgotten that Galileo was largely supported outside of Italy by many other men of faith.

Surprising relevance to today

Although a challenging read to follow at times, it is difficult to put the book down. Galileo’s struggle with long stretches of illness defers release of his writings and letters by years at a time leaving you wondering where we would be if his illnesses had taken a turn for the worst.  The detailed accounts of plagues and illnesses across Italy at the time also provide an uncanny parallel to ongoing issues in our present time. The global pandemic in our modern world seems unprecedented to us but this book shares the day to day normality of disease, quarantine and the restrictions to ‘normal life’ that was to them a normal part of day to day living.

Final thoughts

On the surface, Galileo’s Daughter appears to simply be a biographical account of Galileo’s life. However, the journey that Dava Sobel takes you on through the turmoil of Suor Maria Celeste and Galileo’s life, challenges the well held misconceptions of the role of women in scientific history and the fall out between Galileo and the Catholic Church. Had it not been for the intellect, wisdom, faith and love of Suor Maria Celeste, we may have never known the full extent of Galileo’s personal journey to explore and theorise the beauty and structure behind God’s creation. It is a beautiful and personal story that is well worth a read.

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