Book Review: Galileo’s Daughter

Galileo’s Daughter:  A Historical Memoir Of Science, Faith, And Love, by Dava Sobel

Admittedly, the life and times of Galileo have been picked over pretty cleanly and it takes a great deal of creativity on the part of a writer to come up with something new to say about his life, and perhaps unsurprisingly the author chooses to frame her discussion in terms of Galileo’s relationship with his family, especially his eldest daughter, who along with her moody younger sister was put in a convent in Tuscany during her early teens.  Admittedly, this does demonstrate that not only was Galileo the sort of person who had a rich life outside of his science, and struggled with his family, including some rambunctious nephews and nieces, his obligations to the convent where his daughters were, and his efforts at helping his mostly ne’er do well son and heir.  This life is worth reading about for me, at least, although I don’t know if the whole feminist angle this book tries to take is really worthwhile, as the book itself is mostly about Galileo himself and only occasionally about the letters that he and his eldest daughter sent, although those letters are enjoyable when they are present, to be sure.

In general, this book of 333 chapters in six parts that goes on for a bit more than 350 pages is told in a chronological fashion.  The chapter titles come from the various documents that are included in them and give some sort of flavor, and the parts of the book are divided according to the location where Galileo was during the course of them.  The author discusses Galileo’s background a little bit but not to any great degree, and then focuses on his complex family history, which included a long relationship with someone it was inappropriate to marry because of Galileo’s patrician (albeit not very wealthy) background, and his failure to find someone suitable to marry his daughters before their teenage years.  A great deal of the discussion involves Galileo’s tendency to engage in humorous and witty pamphlet wars with his various haters and the controversy he attracted within the Catholic world.  The author is generally favorable to Galileo, as might be expected, and attempts to overcome some of the myths that have surrounded his life and behavior through careful scholarship.  Galileo also comes off as human and flawed but definitely sympathetic, which is the case for his eponymous eldest daughter as well.  All in all, if you’re looking for a history that focuses on Galileo as a family man as well as scientist and courtier, this is definitely a worthy volume.

That is not to say that the book is a perfect one, though.  The framing of the book shows some major corruption in the Catholic Church and also demonstrates the unpleasant aspects of Galileo’s conflict with his former friend who became a Pope, who is not as sympathetically framed, even though a definite case can be made that the problems between him and Galileo sprang from institutional needs and the pope’s attempts to preserve the power of the papacy in world affairs, something jeopardized by Galileo’s acerbic writing.  As a writer whose style and approach is not so far removed from Galileo, though, I can definitely see a lot of myself in him, and I suspect that was intentional.  I disliked the framing of the book as a whole, as I did not feel that Galileo’s life needed a feminist framing by focusing on a bright and talented and responsible eldest daughter as a way of humanizing him.  An honest assessment of his actions and writings will demonstrate his humanity easily enough.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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