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By Dava Sobel
New York: Penguin Books, 1999
ISBN: 0-14-02.8055 3 (pbk) 395

Bob Corbett
August 2015

This biography of Galileo is brilliantly conceived, informative, fascinating, historically sound, learned and grippingly presented. The whole work centers on a set of letters that Galileo received from his daughter, Sour Maria Celeste.

Galileo’s family life was quite bizarre. He never married the woman who bore him his three children and never lived with her and the children. Nonetheless, he loved them, took care of them and remained close with at least two of the children for the rest of his life.

Because Galileo and the mother of his children were not married and even lived in a public manner that called attention to this fact, his daughters were simply not able to be considered for marriage by anyone who was at all “proper” in Italian society of period. Thus both daughters were sent to the convent. One, Sour Maria Celeste and her father carried on a long correspondence. Sour Maria Celeste was bright and interested in her father’s work and they discussed much of that work in their letters. However, when she died, as was customary in her convent, all her belongings were destroyed, and that included all of Galileo’s letters which he had sent her over many years, and which clearly would have been a complete treasure chest of Galileo’s thoughts and the process of his development.

What did survive were Sour Maria Celeste’s letters to Galileo. He kept them all, and after his death they became property of the library in Florence where they still reside. It is these letters of Sour Maria Celeste which are a primary informing source of Dava Sorbel’s biography of Galileo.

Certainly Sorbel has used many sources beyond the letters, however, since Sorbel chooses to approach this biography as sort of a fictionalized (but very accurate) history of Galileo’s life, but it is not written in the typical scholarly format of having footnotes and documentation of his work. Rather, it is written in the format that is much more like a fictionalized account although there are many actual quotes from Sour Maria’s Celeste letters.

While the letter themselves only cover 12 years of Galileo’s life they were from his most productive and controversial period from 1623 to 1634. The nuns lived materially very difficult lives and Maria Celeste died some 8 years before her father.

What I found so appealing in this approach that Dava Sorbel takes is that the humanness of this father / daughter correspondence lends a lovely flavor to this biography and humanizes Galileo in a beautiful manner along the way.

However, it does appear that Galileo could be a very difficult person to be a friend with. He was complete absorbed by his work, rather self-centered and quiet willing to value his work such that he would comfortably rely on others for his daily needs without seeming to have any great deal of gratitude!

I don’t tend to have a clear time line fixed in my memory of past times, so it was useful to me as I read this work to remind myself of a sort of time line of key people and their times.

Columbus’ famous voyage was in 1492
Luther presented his famous 97 theses in 1517
Copernicus (who is an important figure in this story of Galileo’s life) published
On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres shortly before his death in 1634.

Galileo himself was born in 1564 and died in 1642. His daughter, Maria Celeste dies just 8 years earlier than her father in 1634, the same year as Copernicus.

Dava Sorbel’s gripping and intriguing biography provides a beautiful account of this father / daughter relationship, humanizing Galileo as well as providing a gripping account of his scientific career and the sad details of his constant struggles with the Roman Catholic Church’s difficulties to tolerate the content of Galileo’s claims.

On Sorbel’s account Galileo was drawn to the Copernican system of the Sun being the center of the solar system. What was a central tool that led Galileo to become convinced this was so was the coming of the telescope, which, on Sorbel’s account, Galileo did not invent, but rather Galileo significantly developed the telescope making it the central tool that let him to adopt the Copernican Sun-centered view.

Galileo was in a difficult position. He was a fairly devout Roman Catholic, and at one time even a friend to Pope Urban VIII, yet the two fell out over this position of Galileo and the Pope was a central figure in Galileo’s view being condemned and him prohibited from promulgating it any longer in public.

Galileo was prohibited from publishing his book himself, however, eventually a hand written copy was smuggled out of the country and published, not by Galileo, but by others and became, of course, the dominant theory of the time.

I found this to be an exceptional read. Author Dana Sorbel is able to humanize Galileo and his story because of her reliance on the dialectic between the more traditional stories of Galileo’s life, all of which would have revolved around his science, with this deeply touching story of the father / daughter relationship between Galileo and his one daughter. It only adds to the beauty of that story to see that, at least on Sorbel’s account, the rather disinterested position of Galileo’s other daughter, who was in the same convent as Sour Marie Celeste.

In any case, the dialectic that alternates between the father / daughter relationship and letters (at least one side’s letters) and the more publicly historical details of Galileo’s life and struggles with the Church seems to work beautiful to humanize Galileo and at the same time give the reader a deeply felt sense of his time and struggles as well as to give a fairly solid historical account of Galileo’s important contribution to our modern world.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett