Galileo Galilei was probably one of the most important scientific figures of all time and with his thesis and ideas which confirmed that it was the Earth that moved and not the Sun he cemented his place in history but at considerable personal cost to himself. In fact it was only less than 20 years ago that the catholic Church admitted it was wrong on this question after it had persecuted Galileo and led him to suppress his theories without any hope of having them implemented.
Actually, Galileo was the forerunner of the science of physics which he turned to after having been silenced on the earth’s orbit issue. In this book by David Sobel, we have a biography of the great scientist but this is also considerably illuminated by the correspondence between Galileo and his daughter Virginia who turned to holy orders but who kept up a lively exchange with her father on various issues. The authenticity of the correspondence makes it an extremely interesting and intriguing read.
The narrative is intriguing enough and we learn of several incidents in Galileo’s life which had considerable effect on the way man perceived science. The book also adds considerable depth to his humanity since this is an issue which we perhaps do not take too seriously since it is overshadowed by his more illustrious achievements in astronomy and physics. For example, I have to confess that I did not even know that Galileo had three daughters and that Virginia was a nun but Sorel puts that to bed with his greatly intriguing and hugely colourful narrative.
Sobel is very adept at interspersing the letters into the narrative but the tragic loss of Galileo’s own replies to this sensitive correspondence is something which we have to bear. However it seems that Virginia was a sort of confidante to her father since her letters are strikingly detailed and touch upon various issues which also throw new light on how Galileo tackled the issues with the Church and the Inquistion. The fact that Virginia was a nun perhaps assisted Galileo much more in accepting his terrible fate and was also a source of moral encouragement and spirituality.
Sobel’s narrative is not just a simple exchange of correspondence however. He manages to convey the trials and tribulations through Galileo was made to pass through as he provided ample proof of the theories of the Polish astronomer Copernicus however the reaction of the Catholic Church was savage and out of proportion. Sobel does not mince any words in his description of the retribution meted on the courageous Galileo and in today’s age of liberalism, this story takes on a whole new light. It is truly a heroic endeavour and full of points to ponder.
Although the conflict between the Catholic Church and Galileo takes up most of the narrative, we are also given some interesting biographical details on the great scientist’s life which we would perhaps have passed over if they had not been pointed out to us. Galileo was born in Pisa in 1864 and his father Vincenzo appears to have been a mentor and important figure in his life. Vincenzo was a humanist with a tradition of rebelling against authority, something which definitely ingrained itself into Galileo himself.
In a sense, Galileo was caught between a rock and a hard place due to the fact that the Catholic Church had just convened the Council of Trent to deal with the problems of the Reformation just after he was born. This created a Church hierarchy which was adamantly opposed to any secularist theory so the great scientist’s ideas became all the more anathema to a church which could not accept even a slight affront to its rule. In fact when Galileo was teaching mathematics at Padua in 1600, the noted apostate Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in Rome – a visible demonstration of the lengths the Church would go to affirm its power and influence.
Sobel also describes the little things which made Galileo great, for example the way in which he used the telescope to observe celestial bodies. In fact, Galileo was to return to the study of motion after his famous trial and whilst working in silence he actually proved his point, much to the consternation of those opposed to him. Sobel is very matter of fact and descriptive when he goes into certain aspects of Galileo’s work which is also occasionally backed up by his daughter’s letters. The narrative also goes to great lengths to explain what Galileo thought of his detractors and persecutors where he was repeatedly astonished by their ignorance in proposing theories which could never hold water in the scientific world.
The book rises to a climax of sorts when it describes how Pope paul V came out with the notorious edict of 1616 which forbade any notion of Copernicanism and the appointment of the infamous cardinal Bellarmino who was known as the ‘hammer of the heretics’ to examine cases where Copernicus was quoted. Sobel then returns to Suor Virginia who is the Poor Clares convent and here we are regaled with several pieces of interesting descriptions of life in a 17th century Italian cloistered convent.
Undoubtedly one of the most important parts of the book is the description of Galileo’s ‘Dialogue’ which espoused how the earth really moved around the Sun. This obviously led to the expected retribution from Pope Urban VII and his infamous trial which culminated in the suppression of the Dialogue as well as his placing under house arrest. Here Sobel once again intersperses the letters from Virginia who proved to be of considerable moral support to her ageing father who undoubtedly suffered greatly through the exclusion that was created by his forced banishment and house arrest.
It is ironic that Pope Urban VII who previously held Galileo in high esteem was to be the one who was so hard on him and who carried out the heresy conviction with so much zeal. However although the Dialogue was banned, it still had a healthy circulation on the black market and continued to make Galileo’s name famous. Sobel also describes the fact that the aged scientist outlived his daughter although when his remains were exhumed in 1737, a small coffin was found below which included the remains of his own daughter. ‘Galileo’s Daughter’ is indeed an excellent book which takes a different biographical angle which is however no less effective in its description of this great scientist and his achievements in the world of astronomy and physics in general.
Dava Sobel, Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love, Walker & Co., ISBN 0802713432, 448 pp