A father who put the sun first


I wrote in the colloquial tongue," Galileo explained when his book "Bodies in Water" was published in Florence in 1612, "because I must have everyone able to read it.... I want [common working men] to see that just as Nature has given to them, as well as to philosophers, eyes with which to see her works, so she has also given to them brains capable of penetrating and understanding them all." With notable success, biographer Dava Sobel has made the life and achievements of the great Italian scientist comprehensible to ordinary readers.

The title of Sobel's new volume, "Galileo's Daughter," is somewhat misleading since her narrative focuses on the career of the distinguished father and touches only peripherally on the cloistered life of his older daughter. Virginia was the illegitimate offspring of Galileo's 12-year relationship with Marina Gamba, a Venetian woman whose social standing made her an unsuitable marriage partner. She was raised, in part, by her grandmother before entering the convent of San Matteo in 1613. Three years later, she chose the name Maria Celeste "in a gesture that acknowledged her father's fascination with the stars."

For the next 20 years, she devoted her life to religious duties and medicine. Her father, who frequently found himself with one complaint or another, was one of her patients. While the letters afford glimpses into life at San Matteo - the Poor Clares were often bordering on starvation - they take on the role in this volume of documenting the bond between father and daughter and illustrating the depth and breadth of that relationship.

Suor Maria Celeste patiently supported her father, providing constant encouragement and practical assistance. In the early years, she copied his manuscripts. When he was called to Rome, she oversaw the management of his household, keeping track of his servants and, significantly, of his private papers. Most important, she never questioned either his commitment to the Roman Catholic Church or his scientific investigations, which, despite his efforts to comply with church guidelines, inevitably came into conflict with official dogma.

Yet he attempted to remain within the good graces of the Catholic Church. Cautioned by church leaders not to challenge religious doctrine head-on, he resorted to dialogue - discussions among fictional scholars - as a means of examining opposing theories. He submitted manuscripts to church censors and made requested revisions. Inevitably, his own conclusions - that the earth rotated on its axis and revolved around the sun - came across as the most persuasive, and, as a result, he was summoned to Rome in 1633 to face an inquisition.

Immersed in his own work, Galileo had failed to appreciate the tremendous political pressures that confronted Pope Urban VIII and forced this former ally to adopt a position toward new scientific discoveries that was both inflexible and hostile. He was found guilty of heresy and spent most of his remaining years under house arrest, but without the companionship of his daughter. Suor Maria Celeste died in the spring of 1634.

Galileo's conviction led to the destruction of many, but not all, of his own papers and publications - including, apparently, his letters to his daughter. Sobel draws from the collections that remain, virtually all of which have been used extensively by previous biographers. What makes her book different is the shifting of emphasis toward Galileo's private life. This glimpse - and it is really not much more than a glimpse - allows her to explore the character of her subject a bit more fully while, at the same time, examining the discoveries and inventions that made him great. In Sobel's hands, this strategy is enormously effective.

*Christine L. Compston is author of a forthcoming biography of Chief Justice Earl Warren.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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