Book review: Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel…

Hello all, after seeing this galvanizing interview of Neil deGrasse Tyson on The Daily Show last night (which has gotten me excited to read his new book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier), I’ve decided to start reviewing science-related books. Wait, don’t go running for the hills just yet, I’m not talking about textbooks. Personally, I find science textbooks, specifically physics ones, to be incredibly dull and difficult to get through; I mean pacing wise, not just content. As I’m sure you can imagine, physics textbooks tend to be very dense and non-verbose.  On the other hand, I do have a very deep affection for  non-fiction regarding the history of science and general or pop science books. The history of science can be an extremely interesting topic when authors take the time and care to put emphasis on the more personal side of the scientist(s) or science on which they are focusing. Author Dava Sobel does just this as she takes a look at the relationship between Galileo Galilei and his eldest daughter, Virginia, in Galileo’s Daughter.

For quick background, Galileo Galilei is widely considered the father of modern astronomy. Although famous for being the first to commonly use a telescope for astronomical observation and did make drastic improvements to the instrument, he did not in fact invent it. It is generally accepted that the telescope was first developed by Hans Lippershey and other lensmakers in the Netherlands around 1608. Truthfully, Galileo’s biggest contributions to history were several discoveries he made around 1610-1611 that provided serious proof for Nicolaus Copernicus‘ theory that the Earth was not the center of the universe: 1) that Jupiter has moons, 2) that one can see phasing when observing Venus, 3) that the Moon is actually covered in craters, 4) that the Sun occasionally is speckled by sunspots. The first proved that objects orbited bodies other than Earth, the second that Venus must in fact orbit the Sun and be closer to it than Earth, and the third and fourth proved that the celestial bodies were not  “perfect orbs” as proposed by the Church.

Galileo is perhaps most famous for his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church on charges of blasphemy following his attempts to perpetuate Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the solar system. It’s perhaps this major event in Galileo’s life that makes Sobel’s book so intriguing. Although the book is mostly about Galileo’s life and discoveries, Sobel’s recount of the biographical timeline is structured around letters between Galileo and his oldest daughter Virginia. Now, that might not sound too riveting, interesting on a personal interest level, but not all that groundbreaking or scandalous, but the interesting twist comes from the fact that Galileo was extremely religious (as most Italians of the seventeenth century were) and the letters Sobel cites and shares are between the Florentine scholar and his daughter while she was in a convent. Not only does Sobel engage the reader in the significance of Galileo’s scientific advancements and the stresses and details of his trial at the hands of the Church, she also opens the reader’s eyes to Galileo the patriarch. Several letters reveal Galileo’s attempts to justify his steadfast belief that the church’s geocentrism is wrong and Virginia’s concern and love for her father in his time of desperation and strife. In fact, as Sobel’s website claims, “[Galileo and Virginia’s] loving relationship, traced through actual correspondence, overturns the myth of Galileo as an enemy of the Catholic church.” Personally, I think it’s for just this reason that Galileo’s Daughter is the most emotionally engaging piece of non-fiction literature I’ve read.

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2 Responses to Book review: Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel…

  1. That’s interesting. I never thought of him as being overly religious but of course it makes perfect sense.

    Also– Loved Tyson on the Daily Show… “By the way, your globe is spinning the wrong way!”

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