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Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel | Book Review

When we hear the name “Galileo Gelilei”, what are the first things that come to our mind? That, he invented the telescope, that we was the first man in Europe to gaze at the stars, the one who found out that Moon’s surface consisted of mountains and hills just like Earth, who discovered the four satellites of Jupiter and the dark spots on the surface of the pristine sun. Yes, he did all these; he was one of the most brillian minds in Euope in 16th and 17th century. But, there is much much more to know about the life of this man who is truly honoured as the father of “Experimental Physics”.

Born in a patrician family, 1564 in Pisa, Italy, Galileo learnt his first lessons in physics working with his composer father on tuning the musical instruments by mathematical principles. He studied at the University of Pisa and went on to teach mathematics at the University of Padua. It was here that he met Marina Gamba, whom he took as his mistress. Though he never married her, she gave birth to three children of Galileo: Virginia, Livia and Vincenzio. When Galileo moved back to Tuscany as the chief mathematician and philosopher to the grand duke, he took his daughters with him. Since, the girls were illegitimate children; there was no hope for them to be married. And Galileo entered them at the convent in Arcetri, where they become nuns at the age of sixteen and spent rest of their lives. The eldest of his children Virginia, who was renamed Suor Maria Celeste when she became a nun, remained a source of continuous comfort, care, love and consolation throughout his life.

As we know, Galileo was vastly contested by his contemporaries, especiallay those who held the aristotalean and Ptolemic structure of the universe and did not believe in Copernican theory of a heliocentric universe. Though, Galileo was able to provide physical evidence by actually showing people around him the heavenly bodies with his telescope, his works incurred the displeasure of the Catholic Church with various Jesuits claiming his work to be heretic. The conflicts grew so much so over years that his work called the “Daialogue” was banned by the Church and he was prosecuted for writing it. And at the age of seventy, Galileo found himself abandoned to a house prison in an ill health.

Throughout the tormenting years of his life, Maria was his most faithful correspondent from behind the walls of her convent. She continuously worried about his health and provided various medicines prepared by her in the convent, looked after the household affairs for him, prayed for him, in short a pillar of strength and filial love. Of their voluminous correspondence, only a few letters remain today, written by Suor Maria Celeste and saved by Galileo. Dava Sobel has translated these letters from Italian and based on these letters and other documentary evidence available, she has composed the life account of Galileo called, “Galileo’s Daughter”.

Written in a simple, elegant style, the book is truly a historical memoir of science, faith and love. Over the centuries, Galileo has become the symbol of the conflict between science and religion in Europe, but this one fact has overshadowed other aspects of his life. As special as his telescope and discoveries pertaining to the Universe are, he was also the inventor of other instruments like mathematical compass and most importantly the first man to define “motion” into laws of mathematics. Before Galileo, Laws of Nature/Physics were considered to be outside the scope of mathematics. He carried out experiments by rolling balls on a wooden arced stripe and came out with the basic idea of acceleration of moving bodies. He was also the first person to study the oscillatory motion of pendulums. It was Galileo’s basic theories that Sir Isaac Newton later expressed in terms of equations and defined his laws of motion and gravitation.

Dava Sobel has woven the letters by Galileo’s daughter in the narrative so expertly that the two lives, that of a scientist and that of a man fuse together to complete the picture in its entirety. The letters introduce us to the Galileo who had a generous heart, who took responsibility and supported his family and relatives with financial aid, who was as much devoted to smallest of the needs of her daughter as he was to the incessant call of science throughout his life. He never stopped working, even after he lost his eyesight in old age. His mind was continuously engaged by the questions presented by nature until he died in 1642.

Suor Maria Celeste died at quite an young age in 1634, eigth years before her father. But, she never left Galileo’s heart and her remains share her father’s tomb even today. A must read for all those who love to study the lives of the great men who significantly changed the science by their immense contribution……….

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