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

by Dava Sobel

Hardcover, 1999

Call number




Walker Books (1999), Edition: 1st, 384 pages


"The son of a musician, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) tried at first to enter a monastery before engaging the skills that made him the foremost scientist of his day. Though he never left Italy, his inventions and discoveries were heralded around the world. Most sensationally, his telescopes allowed him to reveal a new reality in the heavens and to reinforce the astounding argument that the Earth moves around the Sun. For this belief, he was brought before the Holy Office of the Inquisition, accused of heresy, and forced to spend his last years under house arrest." "Of Galileo's three illegitimate children, the eldest best mirrored his own brilliance, industry, and sensibility, and by virtue of these qualities became his confidante. Born Virginia in 1600, she was thirteen when Galileo placed her in a convent near him in Florence, where she took the most appropriate name of Suor Maria Celeste. Her loving support, which Galileo repaid in kind, proved to be her father's greatest source of strength throughout his most productive and tumultuous years. Her presence, through letters which Sobel has translated from their original Italian and woven into the narrative, graces her father's life now as it did then." "Galileo's Daughter dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishment of a mythic figure whose seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion. Moving between Galileo's grand public life and Maria Celeste's sequestered world, Sobel illuminates the Florence of the Medicis and the papal court in Rome during the pivotal era when humanity's perception of its place in the cosmos was being overturned."--Jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member ladycato
Every year I like to read at least one nonfiction book that educates me about an era or people I'm otherwise ignorant of. Last year I read Nathaniel's Nutmeg, a book that has forever changed my perspective about paying $2 for a jar of nutmeg at the grocery store. This year I selected Galileo's
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Daughter. I admit, I didn't know much about the man other than that he was the father of modern sciences and was censored by the Catholic church, but I didn't know the details of that.

This book takes a fascinating approach to Galileo by studying him through his eldest daughter's eyes. He had three children--all illegitimate--with the two girls placed in a convent. The eldest, dubbed Suor Maria Celeste as a nun, had all of the intelligence and wit of her father. She managed many aspects of her convent, and while her father was imprisoned by the Inquisition, she also ran her father's household--even though she could not leave the convent grounds. This book delves heavily into Galileo's Dialogues, a volume that earned him the acclaim of his fellow scientists and the scorn of the Pope (his former friend), and resulted in his prolonged captivity during a time of virulent plague.

I'm very glad I read this, though at times it was challenging for me. I do not share Galileo's scientific mind, and I'm awed at the discoveries and observations he made with the tools at his disposal. I adored Maria Celeste's letters. Her voice is delightful and bright, always drawing heavily on her faith while supporting her father to the utmost. It's no wonder that Galileo was crushed by her death at age 34. Galileo's own long life of 77 is quite remarkable; up to the very end, despite blindness and incapacitating pain, he dictated new theories to his apprentice.

I highly recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member ParadigmTree
Galileo's Daughter is a biography of Galileo Galilei wonderfully told by Dava Sobel. It is also a story of Galileo's daughter, with whom he corresponded extensively and loved devotedly. The surviving letters from Galileo's daughter frame Sobel's recounting of Galileo's life, from his intellectual
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triumphs to the ultimately tragic confrontation with the Catholic Church regarding the Copernican view of the universe. Throughout the story, Sobel includes other fascinating details about 16-17th century Italy, such as what life was like for Galileo's daughter living in a convent, and how the plague impacted events. Overall I found this book to be enjoyable and beautifully written.
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LibraryThing member JGolomb
What Dava Sobel does best is connect world-shattering science with the individuals who brought that discipline or discovery to light. Beyond that, she provides the context of the world in which they lived. In writing about Copernicus and John ‘Longitude’ Harrison, she wrote of worlds on the
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cusp of modernity, one world much closer to the dark Middle Ages, another in the throes of a technological evolution. In “Galileo’s Daughter”, Sobel introduces us to the scientist as a man, as a father, and as a much more human figure than history tends to portray.

Galileo’s daughter is Suor Maria Celeste. Living in a convent since she was an early teen, her letters to her father bring an amazingly fresh ‘day-in-the-life’ perspective to this amazingly significant time in history. Galileo saved numerous letters from his daughter and Sobel translated them for this book. Suor Maria Celeste’s belongings were not saved when she died (sadly preceding her father by several years) as was the tradition in 17th Century convents. And so we get an interesting one-sided view of Galileo Galilei through the eyes of his daughter.

She’s proud of her father and clearly loves him. She seems to hold her father in the palm of her hand…that magical ability that all daughters have over their fathers since time in memoriam. She’s indirect, but it’s clear that she knows how to push his buttons. She doesn’t take advantage, at least not in any modern sense. But she knows what to say when she needs money (for her convent), or a favor. She loves her father deeply.

“Galileo’s Daughter” is written through several lenses. We witness the biography of Galileo’s life. We witness the history of the Late Renaissance and the Counter Reformation. And we witness a certain amount of daily life as we peer over Galileo’s shoulder and read the sweet and exceedingly genuine letters from a loving daughter to her surprisingly doting father.

Galileo wrote on many scientific topics, but his most famous work is his treatise on “Two Chief Systems of the World”. He supports the worldview that Copernicus identified a generation earlier – that the heavens do not in fact revolve around Earth. Sobel does a nice job of integrating Galileo’s deft handling of the topic that ultimately landed him in front of the Roman Inquisition.

Galileo was an extremely well-know and highly regarded figure in his own lifetime. His trial, and public abjuration of errors and admittance to certain heresies, became a defining moment in a scientific revolution, and would cause a rift between men of science and men of religion that would be felt well into the 20th century. John Paul II referred to the 350-year Galileo affair: “has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith.”

Galileo preferred to validate theory through experimentation, not a common approach of the time. He dropped balls of different sizes off of the Leaning Tower in Pisa to compare the speed of the falling spheres, but Sobel writes that, “Many philosophers of the sixteenth century, unaccustomed to experimental proof, much preferred the wisdom of Aristotle to the antics of Galileo…”

The Dutch had invented a spyglass that Galileo reworked into something more powerful that would ultimately become a telescope. Working with the military at the time, Galileo saw it’s potential and pitched the device to the Doge and entire Venetian Senate. This resulted in a lifetime contract at the University of Padua with a salary to more than account for a life of comfort and ease.

With his new telescope, he became obsessed with the night sky. Among the many graphics in Sobel’s book, are beautifully detailed hand-drawn images of the Moon that Galileo created in 1609.

The next year he came across the discovery that would ultimately set him on a path that would challenge one of the most powerful institutions in the World – the Catholic Church. In January of 1610, Galileo wrote that he saw, “four planets never seen from the beginning of the world right up to our day, “ in orbit around the planet Jupiter. He’d identified previously unknown heavenly bodies. This would lead to his expansion of and (sort of subtle) advocacy of Copernicus’ sun-centric theory. What Copernicus derived theoretically, Galileo substantiated through study and experimentation. What was known at the time as ‘philosophy’, Galileo turned into modern day ‘science’.

He was a man who was exceedingly self-actualized. The last 30 pages of the book evoke a stinging pain as one realizes that an elderly Galileo was acutely aware that he was nearing the end of his days. He was frail, mostly bed-ridden, and sadly, the eyes that had once seen further (and more deeply) than any other person on Earth, had clouded over with age. He wrote a friend, “Bereft of my powers by my great age and even more by my unfortunate blindness and the failure of my memory and other senses, I spend my fruitless days which are so long because of my continuous inactivity and yet so brief compared with all the months and years which have passed; and I am left with no other comfort than the memory of the sweetnesses of former friendships, of which so few are left…”

Suor Maria Celeste “approved of his (Galileo’s) endeavors because she knew the depth of his faith. She accepted Galileo’s conviction that God had dictated the Holy Scriptures to guide men’s spirits but proffered the unraveling of the universe as a challenge to their intelligence.”

Following his trial and while under house arrest, he wrote, “I have two sources of perpetual comfort…first, that in my writings there cannot be found the faintest shadow of irreverence towards the Holy church; and second, the testimony of my own conscience, which only I and God in Heaven thoroughly know. And He knows that (none)…have spoken with more piety or with greater zeal for the Church than I.”

There’s no mistaking any of Galileo’s actions as accidental or disingenuine. I believe, after reading this book that Galileo was at peace accepting a world where science and religion can co-exist, without existing severe doubt.

I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.
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LibraryThing member melydia
This is basically a biography of Galileo interspersed with letters from his devoted eldest daughter, a cloistered nun. The life story was of course quite fascinating, from his earliest publications to the trial by the Inquisition late in his life. His daughter’s letters, however, were less
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illuminating, consisting mostly of household minutiae and requests for money. Her repeated professions of love seemed to border on the passive aggressive, but I suppose that may have just been the translation. It’s too bad her father’s replies were lost; I would have liked to know what sorts of things he said to her. Still, this was a good overview of the life of a great man, and Sobel remains one of my favorite science writers.
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LibraryThing member iayork
A little disappointing: Having read Longitude by the same author, I find this book a little disappointing. Indeed, it is more a long-drawn out tale of Galileo rather than of his daughter. Although the tale of Galileo is interesting and very well researched, his daughter's letters do not add much to
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the story and tend to become boring and repetitive.
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LibraryThing member john257hopper
A very readable and human account, effectively a double biography of the great astronomer and mathematician and of his daughter, a nun, much of the human colour being told though her letters to him that show the depths of her devotion and solicitude for him even from within the confines of the
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monastery that she never left between her taking vows at age 16 and her death of dysentery at 33. Very moving and revealing and tragic, depicting Galileo's ordeal sympathetically, while at the same time avoiding generalised sweeping comments posited from a solely modern viewpoint on the science v faith relationship. Just half a point docked for the rather poor quality black and white illustrations.
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LibraryThing member robertg69
unusual approach to discussing the struggle between traditional religious truths and science
LibraryThing member lindayakle
This book prompted me to completely change the direction of a Humanities survey class that I teach so that it became an interdisciplinary approach that began with this book.
LibraryThing member wiremonkey
Although the title gives you the impression that the main character is Galileo's daughter, this is really a very readable biography about the man himself, his relationship tp his daughter (through their prolific correspondence) as well as a panoramic view of 16th-17th Renaissance Italy.
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Michelangelo dies the year Galileo was born. He lived through the bubonic plague, the thirty years war and the ridiculous theological posturing of the catholic church. Personally, I love reading biographies of scientific thinkers, especially astronomers. I love how the human mind can understand so much simply by being stilll and observing.
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LibraryThing member mwittkids
See Galileo through through the beautiful letters of his daughter. The author weaves her commentary throughout.
LibraryThing member artnking
If you are the father of a daughter, and you look forward to a lifetime of love and deep communion with her, you will be touched by this book. If you are a daughter who loves her father, you will be touched even more.
LibraryThing member ilovereading
Beautifully told story of the great life of a man of both faith and science. Fascinating contrast between the larger than life figure of Galileo and his struggles with the Church and his contributions to science; and, his faithful and loving daughter living her "small" life in service to God and
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her fellow sisters.
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LibraryThing member EmScape
I had expected a fictionalized narrative following the daughter of the famous astronomer. What I got was a detailed biography of Galileo himself. However, I still continued reading to the end.
With more warmth and humanity than your average historical account, Sobel's story weaves the life and
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family of its subject in among the facts of his life. Such things as his recurring illnesses and his struggles with the church authorities are brought to life and made more interesting.
I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the life of Galileo, or anyone who is interested in the day-to-day activities of Italy in the 17th Century.
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LibraryThing member sgerbic
Reviewed July 2004

Stirling had to write a report on Galileo for Jr High, so we went to the library for books. I had heard of this book and was drawn into reading it. I had to renew it 3 times as it is a very detailed work, and I have almost no knowledge of these people or places for familiarity.
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My problems understanding things was probably because of all the similar names used. Galileo lived in a house called II Gioiello, don't know what the first two letters mean. In the "Dialoge" and the "Two New Sciences" the characters are named Salviati, Sagredo and Simplico. Vincinzio is son, Viviani is student who acts as the son. Both daughters change names upon taking vows as nuns, and always called formal names, Svor Celeste and Svor Arcangela and there are lots more Svor's in the family as well. I found the pages following Galileo's death to be rushed though as if Sobel felt it the book was just too long. Galileo's relationships with people at the end of his life seemed more interesting and the surprise ending did not fit the tone of the rest of the book. How did Svor Celeste's body get in the tomb with Galileo, her casket was under his which speaks of thought. Well researched book, the plague discussions were amazing, and the horrible yet completing images of a nunnery were fantastic leaving room for thought.

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LibraryThing member kalliope
This was recommended by a friend, and although I had expected a novel, it turned out to be an unusual biography -- but I loved it. The themes of science vs. religion are so relevant today, and the letters from Galileo's daughter, a cloistered nun, lend the story a wonderful intimacy. Somehow the
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author wrote a biography and history lesson that is as much of a page-turner as a good novel. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member juliayoung
Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book. My only source of disappointment with it stems from my misunderstanding. I thought this was going to be a book on Galileo's daughter. While it does feature her, the story is really that of Galileo, his writings and works, and the interaction with the
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Church. That makes for a very interesting story, but it's one I've heard before. It is only Sobel's dedicated research and unique spin involving Suor Maria Celeste that makes this a book worth reading.
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LibraryThing member drewandlori
A pretty interesting account of Galileo's life, his contributions to science, and the factors (which were political and personal at least as much as theological) that lead to his heresy trial. Like the title indicates, Galileo's personal life is especially shown through his correspondence with his
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daughter, Suor Maria Celeste, a Franciscan nun who spent most of her life lin a convent.
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LibraryThing member lbradf
The unique perspective of Galileo's daughter made this book much more interesting to me than it would have been otherwise. It was a gift from my husband, who loves all things scientific as well as history--not necessarily my interests! In the end, I checked out the audiobook from the library and
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quite enjoyed listening to this book.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
An interesting book and a good read, but I was disappointed because the book was really about Galileo, not about his daughter. This is because we really don't know much about his daughter, but the book just turned out to not be what I was expecting or hoping for.
LibraryThing member JBreedlove
The life and trials of Galileo as seen through the letters of his beloved daughter Virginia. A few eye opening facts that are not usually mentioned when Galileo is brought up in conversation. ie. He was a favorite of the Pope and a large portion of the clergy.
LibraryThing member mykl-s
Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love by Dava Sobel (2000)
LibraryThing member JBD1
Well written, but lacked sufficient reference notes.
LibraryThing member goth_marionette
I had high hopes for this book but was a bit let down. I don't feel that the author could decide between fiction and nonfiction. There were not enough references for me to feel that it was scholarly enough. Overall just a so-so book. I think that a reader would have to be very interested in
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Galileo. I would not recommend it for a casual reader.
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LibraryThing member gofergrl84
I really enjoyed this book and the Sobel delves into Galileo's professional and personal life. it's an interesting read and discusses Galileo's ideas, struggles with the church, his faith, and his relationship with his daughter.
LibraryThing member Yells
This is my first one by Sobel but now I look forward to more. She does a wonderful job at bringing history to life. There was just so much packed into this book that I took my time with it and savoured each page. I will have to dig out my copy of Longitude now.


Pulitzer Prize (Finalist — 2000)
Independent Publisher Book Awards (Gold — History — 2000)
LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — Science & Technology — 1999)




0802713432 / 9780802713438
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