Galileo’s Daughter

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

by Dava Sobel

This is so much more than a simple contest between religion and science. Galileo was in fact very pious and did everything in his power to adhere to the often outrageous strictures of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. He even got approval from Pope Urban VIII before publishing the infamous ‘Dialogues’ in which he expounded the arguments of both the Aristotelian (geocentric) and Copernican (heliocentric) systems. Not only that, he had significant and genuine support from within the catholic church, especially the Archbishop of Siena and Cardinal Barberini who put their own positions on the line to support the aging ‘heretic’. Urban VIII effectively reneged on his agreement to the publication under pressure to promote the catholic cause more robustly during the 30 years’ war, triggered by the on-going clash between the reformation and the catholic reaction.

The book conveys not only the feverish paranoia of the Vatican at the time, with parallels to the later soviet state under Stalin, but also gives an amazingly intricate insight into daily life in Florence in the early 17th century through the letters of Galileo’s daughter Suor Maria Celeste. Confined to a nunnery from the age of 16, Suor Maria Celeste’s effective incarceration and highly limited life provides a stark contrast to the world changing, mind expanding contribution of her father. Her unwavering moral support for her father throughout his tribulations was an obvious factor in his resilience. I got a real sense of what it was like to live in a Europe before there was any real awareness of anything much beyond planet Earth, apart from, of course, heaven and hell.

After Galileo everything changed. And as often happens, the suppression of his book actually increased demand and led to a much wider awareness of his work. Rather than feeling angry at the ego-centric materialism and easy violence of 17th century Vatican politics (mathematician, Girodano Bruno, who correctly deduced that the sun is just another star, was burnt at the stake in Galileo’s lifetime) , I found myself with a growing sense of just how important it is even today to maintain the maximum degree of curiosity. Who cares what small minded people think? The only real prisons are the prisons of the mind. Nothing can contain an imagination determined to discover new truths.

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