133 of 135 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 1999
In her previous book, Longitude, Dava Sobel showed how technology (the construction of a sea-worthy clock) solved the problem of determining a ship's longitudinal position in the ocean. In Galileo's Daughter, we see how technology, i.e. the invention of the telescope, gave rise to a an intellectual problem -- how to reconcile truths of science with those of faith. Galileo never intended to contradict the church, but hoped to present the Copernican system of the world as merely an alternative hypothesis to the Ptolemaic view that the earth was at the center of the world. Sobel uses his correspondence with his daughter, a nun, to provide the context of his struggles that ultimately led to his conviction by the Inquisition. As a resuslt of his house arrest, Galileo worked during the last years of his life on Two New Sciences, a work perhaps even more important than the Dialogues on the Two Chief World Systems, and one that laid the foundation for Newton's Principia. Beautifully woven into Galileo's story are the events of the 17th century: the Thirty Years' War, the bubonic plague, the role of the Medicis and that of Pope Urban VIII
219 of 231 people found the following review helpful
Dava Sobel has accomplished what is nearly impossible when dealing with a subject who is as well known, and documented as the life of Galileo. There must be literally hundreds of books on the man, and his works. Dava Sobel not only finds new source information, the letters of Galileo's eldest Daughter Sister Maria Celeste, but also uses them to expand on what is commonly known about Galileo the Scientist, the accused Heretic, and gives us Galileo the Father. It could be argued that the book is as much about Galileo as his Daughter, but that would be misplacing the emphasis of the book. We learn of the extremely harsh life of Cloistered Nuns, the medicines that Galileo's Daughter made and treated him with. This to me was fascinating as opposed to just knowing that Galileo was often sickly. From the detail in the book one could recreate these medicinal treatments if one chose to. This type of detail would not normally interest me, but here it is presented as a Daughter trying to maintain the physical health, as well as constantly buttressing the man's faith as he was accused, tried, sentenced, and watched his life's greatest work banned by his own Church. And to have this torment take place with the consent of a man that Galileo counted as a friend, both prior to his being Pope, and when he became Pope Urban VIII. I feel the Authoress did a brilliant job of handling the religious issue. Rarely can this be attempted without the writer being branded anti-Catholic. She was able to state the facts, without editorial comment, by which she successfully navigated a secular minefield. Some of the facts are so petty and mean-spirited that was it not for the fact they came from Vatican Records, Dava Sobel would find herself the target of the narrow-minded. She often will let the testimony speak for itself. When accused of publishing that which was considered Heresy, Galileo produces written permission granted by the Church Authorities prior to publication of his work. Hard to argue with that, but the Church not only ignored it, but convicted him in spite of it. This is not a Science book yet the Authoress includes enough without discouraging the non-scientist with math formulae. This is not a textbook that recites facts to be memorized and then repeated by rote repetition. What this is, is a gem of a book that makes a familiar historical figure new and fresh to the reader. She expands Galileo from one of history's great scientists, to a man, a man cruelly hurt, the head of a Family, a man betrayed by someone he called a friend. And finally, portrays a devoted Daughter that suffered along with, and did what she could, to support her Father spiritually and physically with a devoted Daughter's love. As I mentioned in the title this book has an outstanding surprise that I was never aware of. Dava Sobel brings it to light with such subtlety and grace that it is a touching revelation, rather than a cheap trick of literary device. Dava Sobel, many thanks, I look forward to your next work.
68 of 71 people found the following review helpful
on August 5, 2001
Sobel's biography of Galileo does many things. As a result, it doesn't cover any one of its aspects in tremendous depth, but does do a good job of covering each of them. This also helps make the book more enjoyable to read. A straight up, full frontal discussion of the great scientist's theories on motion would have been tough for a reader not well-versed in math and physics. By contrast, when Sobel talks about Galileo's scientific breakthroughs, it's clear what the subject is, even if some details are left out.
It also hits some new territtory in its revealing of Galileo, the person, especially his relationship with his daughter. Her correspondence with him shows a woman of ironclad (almost self-flagellating) faith, devoted love for her father (which he clearly shared) and the two of them as just ordinary folks who worry not only about the movement of earth, but also about the laundry. Galileo is also is shown to have a sense of humor; when fined for not wearing his uniform at university, he circulated a tongue-in-cheek poem asking if clothes were really necessary at all.
The book also does a nice job of illuminating Galileo's true greatest feat - changing our definition of "science". In his time, the "natural philosophers" held that the universe was unchanging, that math was useless as a tool to describe the world, and that "if Aristotle said it, it must be true." These concepts are total anathema to science today, thanks largely to Galileo, who disproved them.
With due respect, I'd also like to correct a few errors in some other reviews. Galileo's book "A Treatise on the Tides", did indeed try to use the tides to prove that the earth was not stationary in space. But he claimed that it was earth's motion which caused tides, not the Moon. (He was incorrect, as it IS the moon which causes tides. Newton was the one who discovered this.) This is just one example of science as a constantly evolving, self-editing process. Even the great minds - be they Aristotle or Galileo or Newton - could make mistakes.
Moreover, it would be wrong to characterize this book as anti-Catholic. There's no denying that the 17th century Church was often tyranic and anti-rational. "Galileo's Daughter" doesn't try to whitewash that. But the Church's persecution of Galileo is shown to not merely be a case of religion vs. science (tho that played a part) but also a personal and political struggle. Nor was the Church a monolithic entity. While Pope Urban VIII pursued Galileo with a vengeance, many churchmen continued to support him, even after his condemnation. For that matter, the book's titular character, who comes off as downright angelic, was a nun.
Overall, this is a good read for those interested in science or history.
50 of 52 people found the following review helpful
Some authors are very good telling you about history. Others are very good at putting you into history. Both have their place. But an author who can do the latter is special and Dava Sobel is one of the latter.
Her book, Longitude, was her first and is excellent, bringing to light a crucial and little known part of scientific history. The story of Galileo is better known but often misunderstood by even science teachers like myself. However, by framing the Galileo's story around his daughter's letters (Galileo's replies are lost) we get the feeling of being there in the early 17th century and a real taste of Galileo's successes and setbacks.
I suppose that many people might be put off by this style of history-telling. It is often difficult for a 21st century person to understand the interests and cares of people 25 years ago let alone 400 years ago. I think it's fascinating, however, to see the differences: a time when science was new, creating an awe that is lost on modern people, and religion permeated peoples lives, God's world being as present as the physical one.
As a Catholic, I was particularly interested in Galileo's struggles with the Church. I have often felt this period to be in many ways a low point in Church history. Interestingly, it turns out to be what these things often are: a struggle between both high- and low-minded Church officials, where political issues end up winning out over theological and philosophical ones. Galileo's conviction by the Inquisition (on what appears to be a vote of 7-3) was caused by many factors and his continued support by many highly placed Catholics even after his conviction shows the lack of unanimity in opinion. If I have one disappointment in the Church, it is that Galileo's book, Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, was reviewed and given an imprimatur by Church officials who then backtracked and put the book on the Index and Galileo to trial.
In any case, despite these negatives in Galileo's life, it was nice to see the important role that his daughter, Suor Mary Celeste, played in his life. I have stood before Galileo's tomb in Florence and yet I never realized that his daughter is buried there with him--certainly a sign of her importance to him. And certainly a sign that Sobel has made a wise choice is how to tell Galileo's story.
40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on January 4, 2000
For us laymen - neither historians nor scientists - Dava Sobel has delivered a fascinating and readable exploration of a time in history that has had an immeasurable effect on our own, "modern" life, both at the societal and individual levels. She offers a thorough and apparently well-documented re-analysis of events that shaped the futures of the sciences and the Catholic faith. She tackles these large issues with clarity and an ability to communicate technical, or hairsplitting, concepts to the average reader. She is able to take us through the relationships, personal strengths and follies, and international events that led up to Galileo's famous trial, and does it in such a way that we are not bored in the least.
At the same time, she gives a unique look at the daily lives of people who walked, talked, breathed and loved, just as we do today. Through her research and descriptions, we see that we are not so different from the people who lived so long ago - a good lesson for these very-millennial, oh-so-modern times. In fact, the joy of this book is not the discovery that Galileo had a daughter, and that they wrote letters to each other that we can peek at. The joy is in realizing that we are part of that same tapestry of life; that we are not so unique - and alone - after all.
In terms of expectations for this book, other reviewers are correct: the first portion of the text barely touches upon Suor Marie Celeste at all. However, this delay works. By the time we get to her story, and the story of Galileo's trial, we have enough background information to make them meaningful, and not just a list of dates and characters.
This book was well-written; the style is comfortable and the narrative flows. It's as if a favorite storyteller has moved from fact to fiction and, with no embellishment of the truth, makes the past come alive. I recommend you read this, if only to get a sense of what has made us who we are today.
117 of 129 people found the following review helpful
This is a super book which brings to life the daily routines of the 17th century -- including those life of a cloistered nun -- while telling a great love story, recounting the development in Europe and Italy of modern physics, and describing the political and academic intrigues and jealousies that led to the banning in Italy of the Copernican theory of the universe. Yet, at the same time as Galileo endured persecution by the inquisition and was forced to recant his ideas, buoyed by the love of his friends and, especially, his remarkable daughter, Marie Celeste, he retained both his religious faith and his confidence in science, and continued to work, producing some of his finest work even while under house arrest.
Galileo's story continues to have significance in our present era, when science, and particularly biology, is under attack by political and religious fundamentalists. Sobel's book shows the pettiness and ultimate impotence of such attacks in the face of courageous, ethical minds such as Galileo's and the force and beauty of nature. Best of all, she brings this point home without pedantry or proselytizing, but rather by telling the story simply, as it occurred: and indeed, "Eppur, si muove."
40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2001
I must say right off that this is a historical memoir and though the book is written to include the thoughts and letters of Galileo's daughter, Suor Maria Celeste who chose her name in honor of her fathers celestial interests, it is very much a piece of historical fact. The author has brilliantly researched and added translations and photos of hundreds of documents and items pertaining to the period, including many of the letters written to Galileo by his cloistered daughter. These private thoughts, feelings and fears have been cleverly molded into a story that sheds light on the life of this brilliant man and his futuristic views.
A Man before his time, Galileo's belief that the Earth revolved around the sun brought great discord to the Catholic Church's hierarchy. An outstanding mathematician and scientist he was also remembered to be a profound philosopher. I am giving this book 5 stars because it is beautifully constructed and adds substance and passion to a historical figure that was merely another name in a history book. If you are simply looking for a good story you will be disappointed and find it to be dry in spots. If you are the reader who is in search of a book for more than entertainment this is the perfect choice......Kelsana 3/18/01
74 of 80 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2000
Galileo's Daughter is a rare gift. This marvelous duo biography of Galileo Galilei and his daughter Virginia evokes a sense of time and place, character and action and of cosmic importance that are usually the province of great works of fiction.
Author Dava Sobel's meticulous scholarship and keen insights provide us a literary microscope with which we can examine Galileo's seventeenth-century world as the great astronomer explored the heavens with his telescope.
Galileo's numerous scientific discoveries and his condemnation by the Church for heretically teaching the earth moved around the sun are familiar to most school children. Galileo's Daughter does much more than chronicle these familiar events.
Sobel transports us to the Florence of Grand Duke Ferninando de Medici, the Rome of Pope Urban VIII, the Covent of San Matteo where Virginia Galilei became Suor Maria Celeste and breathes life into Galileo's Italy during the era of The Thirty Years War. Superstition and science, loyalty and treachery, generosity and selfishness, the ridiculous and the sublime each combine in a rich Italinate tapestry of seventeenth-century life.
I recommend this wonderful book to men and women of all ages. It will satisfy even those with little interest in history, science or biography. If you are looking for a good story, well told, that illuminates the human condition, this book is for you.
30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2001
Galileo was an extraordinary scientist. Not least because of his revolutionary inventions, insights, and discoveries, but because he was a scientist in the professional sense. He refused blindly to accept received wisdom, he championed the experimental approach of laboriously testing theories against observations and keeping meticulous records. While this made him great, it also made him controversial. Galileo's enemies were legion within academia and in the church hierarchy. Galileo scorned one nemesis, Grassi and his reliance on majority votes to arrive at truth, noting, "Even in conclusions which can be known only by reasoning, I say that the testimony of many has little more value than that of few, since the number of people who reason well in complicated matters is much smaller than that of those who reason badly." Today's sophists stacking opinions atop each other seeking truth about, say, global warming or AIDS could usefully read these words. He adds, "I believe that good philosophers fly alone, like eagles, and not in flocks like starlings. It is true that because eagles are rare birds they are little seen and less heard, while birds that fly like starlings fill the sky with shrieks and cries, and wherever they settle befoul the earth beneath them."
Sobel's research and excellent story-telling skills, her smooth blending of Maria Celeste's letters with accounts of Medicean Florence throw a light on Galileo's life and times. Caught between rigid church doctrine, expanding scientific knowledge, terrors of the plague, great dynasties, and cataclysmic wars, Galileo not only stood at an intersection of western history, but in many ways he created it. Galileo was ambitious (cunningly plotting for a place in the Medici court), sickly (missing months and years of research and writing because of his ailments), and bored with intellectual lightweights. He was a brilliant writer and a precise logician. His explanations of his discoveries were as powerful as the science itself.
The description of Galileo's trial clarifies an event we thought we knew about. Galileo is tired, timid, and chastened. At 70, is is simply old. It is unlikely that he muttered, or even thought, the words "Still it moves" as some revisionists suggest. His book, "Dialogue", was previously twice approved by church censors, yet he was convicted at his 1634 inquisition trial for its contents. ("Dialogue" remained banned by the church for 200 years.) He recanted, but not from falsity or cowardice, the case is more complicated than that. The Galileo in these pages is a good Catholic who does his utmost to follow doctrine. He seeks and abides by church rulings, knowing that his work is at the limits of its teachings. He never mocks nor criticizes the church but venerates it. His science becomes a tragedy as his developing understanding of the universe, based on his reading of Copernicus and his own observations and reflections, place him in an awkward position. For what he realizes is true is different from what he wants to be true. It is no longer enough for him to hold Copernicus' model as "supposition", he knows it to be fact.
This book only touches upon the more difficult question of why the Catholic church insists on clinging to obsolete theories and disproved models, undermining its own authority and turning its wisest adherents into enemies. Or why the church should take a position in a scientific debate at all. The church's position was one of gripping rigidly to the teachings of two non-Christians, Aristotle and Ptolemy, as well as a few isolated lines of scripture, because the hierarchy apparently decided, wrongly as it is now obvious, that Ptolemy's views were integral to the verities of Christianity.
"Galileo's Daughter" is wonderful. It is a biography of a filial relationship drawn from a daughter's loving letters. It is a window looking in on the impoverished day to day life of a 17th century convent with its concerns for lemons and pillowcases, and a far larger window looking out on 17th century Europe.
37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 1999
There were several reasons I really enjoyed this book. It was well written which was no mean task as someone needed to fill in the history between Galileo's daughter's letters. Secondly, as a scientist, it was fasciniating to try to understand the world through Galileo's eye's and mind. Third, as a physician I have a special interest in middle age medicine. Galileo's dauhgter's letters were filled with interesting details of medical concepts of the middle ages. Fourth, it was fascinating to see the unnecessary tension between the church and science portrayed through the letters and Galileo's response. I have already recommended it to my physician friends.