Dava Sobel is easily the best science history writer I’ve encountered, challenged only and tangentially by Mary Roach. I’ve enjoyed Sobel’s books Longitude and The Planets, and Galileo’s Daughter is even better.
I knew only the outlines of Galileo’s story, and not all of it correctly at that. I initially thought the approach of telling the story through letters from his daughter was forced, contrived. And in fact the first portion of the book – Galileo’s early life – is necessarily not told through these letters at all. Yet once the daughter is old enough, and the letters do turn up, Sobel’s handling of them is masterful – they’re interspersed among narrative history sections in a way that feels entirely organic and natural.
Despite the title, the book is about Galileo, not his daughter. Yet they appear to have been so close that the title is fair – Galileo’s story includes that of his daughter, who was his close confidante, advisor, friend, and even at times manager of some of his affairs – all from within the tight confines of a convent far from Rome and its intrigues.
Intrigues and politics are a substantial part of the story – currying of favor, influential supporters, and careful management of friends are essential to Galileo’s successes and failures. What was heartening to me, though – especially in days like these, when science is seen by some as a bad word – is just how committed and supportive many people were. Galileo is seen, rightly, by many, many people as a forward-thinking genius. The fact that they have to twist their thoughts (or at least utterances) into theological knots in order to both appreciate progress and toe the Catholic line does credit to their intent, and their recognition of Galileo as a force to be reckoned with. It’s equally heartening that his daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, a cloistered, prematurely toothless, 17th century nun under a vow of poverty, is, at least to some extent, recognized by contemporaries as an important participant in Galileo’s achievements.
The book isn’t perfect. I felt it ran a little long, and runs out of energy after Galileo’s encounter with the Inquisition. And there are a lot of Vincenzios to keep track of. But Sobel picks it up somewhat at the end, with a conclusion that left me in tears (okay, it’s not that hard to make me cry). All in all, a beautifully written, carefully researched and organized history of a giant in science, and the daughter who helped him get there.