Saturday, June 7, 2008

Book Review: Galileo's Daughter

As embarrassed as I am to admit it, my knowledge of Galileo's life before reading Galileo's Daughter could be written in a few sentences. I knew he was a great scientist. I knew he did something with telescopes and was an astronomer. But that was about it. I knew he lived part of his life under house arrest but I couldn't tell you why.

But after reading Dava Sobel's biography of Galileo Galilei called "Galileo's Daughter" I feel I have followed his life the way we follow that of some insightful blogger. To put it that way seems to cheapen the experience, because in today's world we don't have eloquent hand written letters like the one's presented in this book. Sometimes when you follow the writings of bloggers you wonder why you must endure painful discourses on their most mundane happenings. In the case of Galileo's Daughter you welcome those trivial details as it casts a vision of the great philosopher that you don't get in a dry science textbook.

I picked up Ms. Sobel's book a few weeks ago while perusing the science section of Borders. I wanted something scientific but also something lighthearted. Upon seeing another book by the author of Longitude I snatched it up and quickly drove home to read it. If you haven't read Longitude or seen A&E's movie, I suggest you stop here and pick up either. You won't be disappointed. I saw the movie first then read the book later and Dava Sobel does an excellent job of turning a biographical story into a page-turning journey without sacrificing historical accuracy.

Galileo's Daughter continues the precedent set by Longitude and places the biography of Galileo against the backdrop of letters written to him by his daughter, Virginia, who adopted the name Maria Celeste when she became a nun. Only the letters from her survive as the letters from him were destroyed after her death. But Sobel gleans much from letters sent by the scientist to his peers.

Applying the morals of a 2008 humanist to the life of Maria Celeste I found myself angered to see her locked inside a convent. Of his three children she seemed the most adept at understanding his thoughts and his theories but she was limited by the norms of society in the 1600's. If you weren't married by age 16 then you became a nun and being an illegitimate daughter she couldn't be married. But this did not stop her from becoming literate in Italian and Latin.

I became so entranced by Sobel's account of their live's that by the end of the book I found myself distraught at how their lives ended. The best dramas could not ask for a better ending to it's character's lives as that of Galileo and his daughter Virginia. Any father who has a daughter should read this together with her. I can only imagine the discourse that will follow between them after reading Ms. Sobel's eloquent account of two loving and intelligent people.

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