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Dava Sobel – Galileo’s Daughter

May 15, 2008

65. Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love by Dava Sobel (1999)

Length: 420 pages

Genre: Non-fiction; Biography

Started: 08 May 2008
Finished: 15 May 2008

Summary: Although the title indicates that this book is about Galileo’s daughter (eldest of three illegitimate children, and a nun from the age of 16), it’s not. Rather, it’s a biography of Galileo, viewed through the lens of his daughter’s letters to him (his reciprocal letters to her have been lost to history). Most people interested in the history of science know at least the basic story of Galileo – first telescope, popularized the sun-centric model of the universe, cannonball off the tower of Pisa, called before the Inquisition and forced to recant, etc. However, this book paints a fuller picture of both his scientific and his personal life – a man troubled by illness and age, doting upon his daughter, yet in his belief that the universe could be explained through close observation and logical deduction, ultimately the founder of modern science.

Review: This book utterly failed to grab my attention, although it may be more of a case of not getting what I was expecting than via any fault of the book per se. The used-book store where I picked this up had it shelved under “Historical Fiction”, and, not doing any particular research of my own, I figured that was what I was getting. Wrong! Not only is it not historical fiction, but the daughter promised in the title was conspicuously absent for large chunks of the book, and used more as a unique angle for looking at Galileo’s life than as an interesting person in her own right. The problem, I think, is that while this book had a lot to say that I didn’t know about the specifics of Galileo’s work and life, it didn’t have a whole lot to say that was particularly astonishing or even interesting. I thought the most interesting parts were the details gleaned from the daughter’s letters about daily life in the convent and in Galileo’s household, but these certainly weren’t the focus of the book.

I also thought Sobel was a little soft in dealing with the Science vs. Religion aspect of the story – a topic that is increasingly relevant today with all of the furor over evolution. Sobel obviously comes down on the side of Galileo, but softpedals the Catholic Church’s blunder in accusing him of heresy, and leaving his Dialogues on the Index of Banned Books for 200 years after his death, by claiming that these decisions were made by cardinals and the Inquisition, and that papal infallibility was never invoked. Which… is true, but feels like Sobel, perhaps like her subject, is backing down from the argument to spare herself the whiff of controversy and the possibility of censure. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you’re actively looking for a biography of Galileo, it’s pretty good (and seemingly gives a pretty complete picture, although I haven’t read others to compare.) For everyone else interested in the history of science, it’s tolerably interesting, but prone to some false impressions of its content as well as style.

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First Line: Most Illustrious Lord Father: We are terribly saddened by the death of your cherished sister, our dear aunt; but our sorrow at losing her is as nothing compared to our concern for your sake, because your suffering will be all the greater, Sire, as truly you have no one else left in your world, now that she, who could not have been more precious to you, has departed, and therefore we can only imagine how you sustain the severity of such a sudden and completely unexpected blow.


  • p. 7: “In 1616, a pope and a cardinal inquisitor reprimanded Galileo, warning him to curtail his forays into the supernal realms.” – being on high or in the sky or visible heavens, but also has the implication of celestial/divine heaven.
  • p. 56: “These off-key reeds that Galileo decried sounded several flat notes, including the immutability of the heavens, the farrago of the celestial spheres, and the immobility of the Earth.” – a mass composed of various materials confusedly mixed; a medley; a mixture.
  • p. 68: ““But acquiring the highest authority in this way, if she does not descend to the lower and humbler speculations of the subordinate sciences and has no regard for them because they are not concerned with blessedness, then her professors should not arrogate to themsleves the authority to decide on controversies in professions which they have neither studied nor practiced.”” – to claim unwarrantably or presumptuously; assume or appropriate to oneself without righ
  • p. 120: ““With this he can buy plaster figures, pens, paper, or anything else he likes; and he may consider himself lucky to have as many scudi as I at his age had groats.”” – hulled kernels of oats, buckwheat, or barley.
  • p. 156: “Vincenzio was to receive a canonry up north at Brescia, along with an annual income of sixty scudi – except that he refused the offer.” – the office or benefice of a canon, a body of dignitaries or prebendaries attached to a cathedral or a collegiate church; a member of the chapter of a cathedral or a collegiate church.
  • p. 175: “His health remained strong throughout this period, interrupting his three-month burst of creativity only once, in early November, when Suor Maria Celeste and Suor Luisa treated his brief indisposition by sending him five ounces of their vinegary oxymel concoction and some syrup of citron to ameliorate its bitter taste.” – a mixture of honey and dilute acetic acid used as an expectorant.
  • p. 189: “With these words Urban gave Galileo a prebend in Pisa – similar but unrelated to the previously granted canonry at Brescia, which had bounced from Vincenzio to Vincenzio and then out of the Galilei family bounds.” – a stipend allotted from the revenues of a cathedral or a collegiate church to a canon or member of the chapter.
  • p. 190: “While his clerical posts did not require him to wear a habit or change his lifestyle, he did have his head shaved in an ecclesiastical tonsure by the bishop of Florence.” – the act of shaving the head or part of the head, especially as a preliminary to becoming a priest or a member of a monastic order.
  • p. 209: “She could not similarly endorse another offering – an electuary of dried figs, nuts, rue leaves, and salt, “held together with as much honey as was needed” – but still she prepared it for him, pressed it on him, and prescribed its usage: “You may take it every morning, before eating, in a dose about the size of a walnut, followed immediately by drinking a little Greek or other good wine, and they say it provides a marvelous defense.”” – a pasty mass composed of a medicine, usually in powder form, mixed in a palatable medium, as syrup, honey, or other sweet substance: used esp. for animals and administered by application to the teeth, tongue, or gums.
  • p. 219: ““At the end,” these instructions stated, “one must have a peroration of the work in accordance with this preface.”” – the concluding part of a speech or discourse, in which the speaker or writer recapitulates the principal points and urges them with greater earnestness and force.
  • p. 316: “The condemnation by the Holy Office, so far exceeding the contumely he had come to expect in reaction to his work, branded him an outcast in his own eyes.” – insulting display of contempt in words or actions; contemptuous or humiliating treatment.
  • p. 325: ““I replied to him that having many times recovered my health through the supreme excellence of Signor Acquapendente, I could depose and certify that he had never given me to drink any compound of cerates, caustics, threads, bandages, probes, and razors, nor had he ever, instead of feeling my pulse, cauterized me or pulled a tooth from my mouth.”” – a hard, unctuous, fat- or wax-based solid, sometimes medicated, formerly applied to the skin directly or on dressings.
  • p. 332: “Suor Maria Celeste, for her part, had no better luck procuring the tiny ortolan buntings that Galileo craved and could not get in Siena.” – an Old World bunting, Emberiza hortulana, esteemed as a table delicacy.
6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2008 7:10 pm

    Hmmm…I just picked this up at a library sale. Oh well, at least I’ll know what to expect if I ever get around to it….

  2. May 15, 2008 8:37 pm

    I really think the vast majority of my problems with this book were on my end, not on the book’s end. Wrong book for the wrong expectations and the wrong mood at the wrong time. You might (probably will) have better luck with it – especially if you’re in the mood for a biography when you pick it up.

  3. May 16, 2008 12:33 pm

    A friend and I both read this book at the same time. She was looking for an interesting biography of a forgotton personage in history, and I was looking for a in-depth biography of Galileo. Neither of us liked it.

    I’d picked up a fair bit about Galileo through other reading, and this book didn’t enlighten me further. The science aspect was simplistic, and didn’t go into nearly enough detail for a science book. I found it very slow going.

    My friend thought there was too much about what Galileo’s experiments were, rather than why they mattered. She also found the biographical aspects lacking.

    So, to me, it failed on two levels. It tries to straddle the line between science, biography, and history, and only manages to be mediocre for all the subjects.

  4. May 31, 2008 7:09 am

    I was talked in to picking this up at a book sale. Based on your review and these comments, I will put this at the bottom of my pile. The Science v. Religion debate is more up my husband’s alley than mine.

  5. May 31, 2008 7:49 am

    I think it would be an okay (if a bit slow-moving) read if what you were after was a biography/history of science… but yeah, I’m not advocating being in a huge rush to read it, either.

  6. Sme permalink
    April 20, 2012 4:35 pm

    Never read this book, but loved another book by same author– Longitude. It describes how King George offered a huge cash prize to whoever was first to find a way to measure location at sea, in terms of longitude, to prevent shipwrecks. Find latitude was already known. That books was interesting, funny, and sad. A quick read, too.

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