Behind Every Great Man….

Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith,and Love Dava Sobel daughter

Product of an oral culture, I tend to think in terms of stories. But I’m also a science geek. So it’s a little ironic that with a lot of science I know the concepts, I’m just vague on the story. That includes the story of the first of the great moderns, Galileo Galilei.

Dava Sobel‘s book is a splendid way to get the Galileo story in one easy read. Sobel penned Longitudeand if you didn’t think it was possible to get a book out of what is essentially the story of clocks, you ought to try it. Here she focuses on the man who turns out to be  the foundational thinker of modern physics and astronomy.

Despite it’s title, this book is really the story of Galileo. And quite a story it is. Born to a musician father,  schooled as a mathematician but never degreed, Galileo lived in the high Renaissance. Medicis ruled. Popes fretted. And our hero invented experimentation as a core approach to science.

In the course of his work Galileo gave us more than a few important concepts. Many of these are school book anecdotes, stripped of any scientific detail and Sobel doesn’t exactly ladle on the hard stuff. So we get the dropping of balls of different weights from the Tower of Pisa, in which he demonstrated that objects fall at the same speed no matter what their weight. Working out the maths of acceleration due to gravity would await Newton but this was the first demonstration. Pisa_xperiment

And did you know it was a bust? The problem arises from the resistance of air–the coefficient of friction as it’s called. Weight and shape will impact drag and so a cannonball will land before a feather. But two balls of different weights? As the master noted when his critics said he’d failed, it’s not like the lighter ball was hanging out  near the top of the Tower when the heavier one hit the ground.*

Galileo’s major discoveries are here: the improved telescope, the moons of Jupiter, and more. There’s also the Church. At the time, the Church took the view that things were as they’d always seemed (and as they had in large part been worked out–incorrectly–by the ancient Greeks, primarily Aristotle).

In light of the evidence of  experimentation the ‘facts’ of the philosophers should have given way. But they didn’t and there’s a cautionary tale here about entrenched ways of thinking refusing to change. There’s some recent experimental work in cognitive biases that backs this up.

You also get  Galileo’s troubles with the Church. At a time when the Pope was also a temporal ruler Galileo played politics to publish his work and, you could say, paid the price later. There’s a modern belief that Galileo refused to recant and didn’t believe in both science and God.  Sobel refutes the first (it never happened, he did recant) and makes the case that Galileo believed science explains God’s world. That’s the position of the Church today so in the long run, he won.

And what about that daughter? Although unwed–in those days scholars evidently married their work as nuns marry the Lord–Galileo had 3 children. His two daughters entered a convent in their early teens and the elder one is the daughter of the title. Schooled (somewhat), and insightful, Sour Marie Celeste became a correspondent of her father and the person he turned to for strength when things got bad.

Or so the blurbs on the book cover would have us believe. The truth is you can buy the complete letters of Sour Marie Celeste if you’re interested. Here you get excerpts and examples meant to illuminate the Galileo story. And you get an interesting twist at the end that I won’t spoil for you.

Even then you have to stretch. Written at a time when there were a lot of formal dictates it takes some interpreting to figure out what she’s really writing about. There’s an awful lot about the finances of the convent and less of the succor we’ve been told about.

And this is one-sided correspondence. Galileo kept his daughter’s letters. But upon her untimely death (Galileo is one of those unfortunate parents who outlived one of his children) the abbess burned the letters from Galileo to his daughter just in case he was a heretic.

If you want to learn about Galileo and his work this is an excellent read. If you’re looking for a father-daughter tale of spiritual and intellectual communion I’m afraid you’ll come up short.

* While searching for the image of the Pisa experiment shown above I came across a fascinating item on the NASA web site. Evidently researchers are using lasers and reflectors left on the moon by Apollo 14 astronauts to determine if the earth and moon–balls of different size and composition and therefore weight–accelerate towards the sun at the same rate. If they don’t, Galileo, Newton and Einstein have to be rethought. Endlessly fascinating.


This song has nothing to do with the post except that it kept running through my head after I decided on the title. Enjoy the great Annie Lenox and Dave Stewart (The Eurythmics) with a little help from Aretha Franklin, doing their 1985 hit, Sisters are Doing it for Themselves:


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