#Review: Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel #History #Nonfiction #History of Science #Biographies

This book is more the story of Galileo than his daughter, but anchored for the most part around the correspondence between the two, or rather what has survived of it which is only her letters to him but not his to her (These I think were destroyed by her order because of the controversy surrounding his work).

Galileo had three children (all illegitimate) but while his son was ‘legitimized’, his daughters both spent their lives cloistered (more so as no grooms could be found for them), a sad reflection on the times. The daughter in question in this book is his older daughter Suor Maria Celeste (born Virginia) who not only corresponded with him regularly (he also used to visit her) but who also continued to be part of his life and work throughout—from doing small chores for him like making sweets from fruit to copying out his writings in a fair hand, to taking active interest in his life, looking after his house when he was away for his trial (all from within the convent) and pleading to him for kindness for her brother and sister and the sisters in her order. We learn a little about Galileo’s early life and work, and his initial appointments as a mathematician until his daughters are placed in the convent (most girls at the time were apparently sent to a convent until a suitable groom was found and they were married, or if none was found, took the veil; both courses involved dowries). Then of course, the story moves along telling us about Galileo’s life and work interspersed with what his daughter is experiencing (as expressed in her letters). Life for the sisters in the Covent of San Matteo was unforgiving, they often had little to eat, one or the other of them was ill and needing constant care, and even things like obtaining a cell to live in required money which they scarcely had. But Galileo helped as far as he could with money and other things needed, something he did for others in his family as well providing the dowry for his sister, supporting his brother and brother’s family, and later his son as well. Alongside these personal stories, Sobel also tells us of Galileo and his work, the different things that interested him from astronomy to motion, and his writings including his Dialogue discussing Copernican heliocentricism which led to his being tried and the work being banned for over two centuries (it was dropped from the prohibited list in 1835, prohibitted in 1633).

I’ve read two of Dava Sobel’s books before Longitude on John Harrisson and A More Perfect Heaven on Copernicus and enjoyed them very much, especially Longitude, and was really looking forward to this one. And it certainly did not disappoint. I thought Sobel did a wonderful job of giving us an idea not only of Galileo’s work, but also his life, his relationship with his older daughter, and a picture of life (and politics) in those times. Before I read this, I had a general idea of Galileo’s work with telescopes and with heliocentricism, but not much about his personal life or other work. The full range of subjects he worked with and his contributions on various subjects from motion to astronomy to tides, the controversy his works generated because he chose to follow a scientific method (experiment and observation), even opposing Aristotle’s findings, his struggle to balance his science and faith, all this when he was quite often suffering ill-health which incapacitated him for long periods, certainly fills one with awe. His relationship with his daughter was rather sweet—the two seemed to share their problems, lives and from the letters we see, I think Maria Celeste was the child he was closest to, his relationship with his son was difficult (although this seems to have improved a little later) and his other daughter seemed not too close to him. It was Maria Celeste who pleaded with him to show kindness to her brother even when he disappointed. Both actively supported each other, with things they needed or wanted (fruit or partridges or new collars) and emotionally stood by each other, especially Maria Celeste.

 One of the things that stood out to me, reading this book during these times especially was how life had probably not changed as much as we think it has. Back in Italy in the late 16th, early-17th centuries, the plague often returned and we read of quarantines and masks (the plague doctors’, that is) and restrictions on leaving one’s home, and the difficulties Galileo faced when he needed to travel—pretty much things that we are facing today (except that he may have been able to email his manuscripts and attend his trial virtually).

I really enjoyed reading this book; it did take me a while to get into it, but that was probably my schedule more than the book for when I picked it up on my day off, I really zoomed through it, the book absorbing me completely. This was another great read from Sobel.

Have you read this one or any others by Sobel? Which ones and how did you find them? Any other bios of Galileo that you have read? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

Author Profile: Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel is a writer of popular science books, and also play/s as well. I first came across her work, believe it or not, through TV. Some years ago, I came across a TV movie/drama called Longitude, starring Sir Micheal Gambon (Dumbledore the second 🙂 ) and Jeremy Irons, based on the development of the marine chronometer, which revolutionised navigation on the seas, since for the first time, sailors could calculate the longitude with some degree of certainty. I really enjoyed the programme (the subject and how it was made), and looking it up, I realised this was a book (based on one, that is). And some time later, when I bought the book and read it, I loved it.


The book tells us the story of John Harrison, a self-educated carpenter and clock-maker who invented the marine chronometer. Apart from the struggles that Harrison faced in perfecting his instrument, a process that took him many years, the book also tells of how he had to also struggle with the Board of Longitude, particularly Rev. Nevil Maskelyne, astronomer royal, to prove the merit of his invention and claim the prize offered for the resolution of the problem. This of course, did leave me with a fairly negative opinion about Rev. Nevil Makelyne, which only changed to something more positive when I read The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes.

John Harrison and Rev. Nevil Maskelyne

Source: (Harrison) By Philippe Joseph Tassaert (1732-1803)After Thomas King († circa 1796 date QS:P,+1796-00-00T00:00:00Z/9,P1480,Q5727902) [1767 painting] ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; (Maskelyne)By Edward Scriven, 1775-1841, printer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, having liked the book so much, I began to look into the author and her other works. Born in 1947, Sobel was a freelance science writer and columnist with several publications (including Harvard Magazine, Science Digest, and the New Yorker) for over two decades, and turned full time author of books after the publication and success of Longitude. To date, she has authored seven books (plus the Illustrated Longitude), of which I’ve read two and have a third waiting on my TBR. All her books deal with science or science-related themes, exploring them from the point of view of people connected with it (or people connected with people connected with it), and sometimes particular incidents/events that influenced in a sense, history (not just of science).

Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel

Source: https://dava-sobel-twf5.squarespace.com/549

And that brings me to the book by her I picked up next, A More Perfect Heaven. This one is all about Nicholas Copernicus and his theory that revolutionised our understanding of the universe, that is heliocentrism or that it is the sun that is the centre of our planetary system. This book doesn’t as such deal with how he came to his finding, but instead with the German mathematician Georg Joachim Rheticus who travelled to Poland, met Copernicus and somehow convinced him to publish his theory. The book is also different from Longitude in the sense that it is written in three parts, the second of which is in the form of a play in two acts that tries to imagine the time the Rheticus spent there, before taking us back into discussing the aftermath of this event, the publication of Copernicus’ book, its different versions, and impact. The play I think has also been published separately but I’m not sure whether this has anything in addition to what appears in the book.



The Bloomsbury ed (that I have) and a Close-up of Copernicus

Source for the Portrait: By Unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

sun stood still.jpg

This was another book that I really enjoyed so I decided to look up yet another of her books, published before this one, Galileo’s Daughter. This one is all about Galileo of course, but also about his relationship with his daughter, Maria Celeste who has taken the veil, based in the over a hundred surviving letters that Maria Celeste wrote to her father (which were published separately in Letters to Father, translated and annotated by Sobel). The book takes us between their two contrasting lives and the world that they lived in. This one I only acquired a copy of sometime ago and it is waiting to be read. Complete with pictures and diagrams, this is looking to be a fascinating read, as Longitude was, and as was A More Perfect Heaven.

Image source (Maria Celeste): Wellcome Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Her other books include The Planets (2006), which paints a portrait of the solar system using various sources, from mythology to history, fiction, and poetry. This covers all “nine” planets, before poor Pluto got the axe. And her latest work, The Glass Universe (2016),somewhat on the lines of Hidden Figures, tells of the women who worked in Harvard College Observatory between the late 1800s and early 1900s, taken on for their ability to work carefully, and at lower pay than their male counterparts.


While I haven’t read very many of Sobel’s books so far, I have really enjoyed the ones that I did read, and am  really looking forward to reading more. For any reader who enjoys history, history of science, or popular science, you are sure to enjoy one or more of her writings.

Have you read any of her books? Which one/ones and what did you think of them? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!


Sources: Goodreads/ book blurbs

Dava Sobel’s site: http://www.davasobel.com/


April Non-fiction Read: The Innocent Man

The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small TownThe Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town by John Grisham

My second Grisham for April, and also my non-fiction read for that month (Both the Grishams I read in April, in fact, were different from his usual, the YA Theodore Boone, and this, non-fiction). The Innocent Man I guess would be classified as ‘true crime’ and this was more or less my first foray into the genre (unless Arthur and George, and Conan Doyle’s version of it counts). This book deals with the conviction of and many years spent on death row by an innocent man, Ron Williamson, of the small town of Ada in Oklahoma. Williamson as a child is an excellent baseball player and seen by most as a future star but when his career doesn’t really take off, let alone him achieving any success, he turns to alcohol, drugs and women, not being able to really even hold a job very long. He faces serious charges on more than one occasion. But in the early 1980s, his life is turned upside down when he finds himself a suspect and the accused in murder of a young waitress close to his house, a woman he’s not even met. Along with him, his friend Denis Fritz, a school teacher also finds himself a co-accused (simply for being Williamson’s friend and having taken a trip out of town with him), and on the flimsiest of evidence, and the testimony of snitches who tell any story that will get them an advantage, Ron ends up on death row and Dennis with a life sentence. In prison, Ron is fighting not only for his freedom but also his sanity, for already disturbed before he has even landed in prison, his stay behind bars drives him deeper into depression and into losing his sanity. His is not the only such case as we see, there are many innocents languishing in prison, even on death row, some from the same town because of a mix of circumstances, from inadequate legal help and financial resources to the authorities themselves, who while not as such corrupt (as one would generally understand it), aren’t much concerned with a fair trial, but more so with securing the conviction of people they believe are guilty (not necessarily based on any evidence).

This book was for me a very disconcerting read. Just the thought, no, in fact proof that, not one or two but many many innocents end up in prison, even on death row as a result of botched up investigations, poor legal aid, and trials that are far from fair, is disturbing. That there are investigators who seem to begin with ‘gut feelings’ and then towards collecting evidence or so-called evidence that can convict the person they have these feelings about (conveniently overlooking what doesn’t help them) rather than thoroughly investigating the case, and even judges who aren’t as concerned with ensuring a fair trial as they ought to be, and all this in a system which supposedly proceeds on the presumption of innocence (while in fact perhaps it is in a sense a presumption of guilt in practice)―what can this do but shake one’s faith in the system (The blurb behind my copy puts it more aptly, ‘It is a book that will terrify anyone who believes in the presumption of innocence…’). Williamson was far from the ideal person, had made many mistakes, committed crimes even; he was a mess, but did he need to suffer as much as he did because of it? The journey is no easier for the victims’ families who believe the culprits have been caught, punished only to be told that these weren’t the ones after all. What are they to believe? What if a mistake was made again the second time? How do they know? And even if the suspect’s innocence is finally proved, does his or her life ever get back to ‘normal’ again? Not everyone will stop looking at them with suspicious eyes, what reparation can they get for a life that can never be ‘normal’ (besides all of what they’ve been put through)? While this book was about a case in the 1980s when aspects of evidence weren’t as strong or developed as today (particularly, no DNA testing), one can’t help but wonder that even this could well be botched up just as things back then, though may be in a different way. Reality can certainly be far scarier than a horror story.

The book, I thought, was well written―it certainly held my attention throughout (I have read reviews that this one is not as good as In Cold Blood but since I haven’t read that one I can make no comparisons), and yet, while I wanted to read on to see how things would turn out, there were times I just put it aside because I kept feeling so unsettled reading it. But then that was probably the point of bringing these cases before us, to show us how far from perfect this system can be and is, and how it can turn lives upside down for no reason whatsoever. For that alone, it is worth a read.

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