Penguin, 2000

ISBN: 978-0140280555

Reviewed by Michal Colebrook
(This review, abridged from the original, was for the hardback edition, 1999)


This is a very readable presentation of the life and tribulations of Galileo Galilei enlivened and enlightened by extensive extracts of letters, translated for the first time, written to him by his daughter. Born in Padua in 1601 and baptised Virginia, daughter of Madonna Marina Gamba and ‘of an unknown father’ [Galileo], she entered a convent of the Poor Claire’s at the age of 13 and took the name Maria Celeste.

We see, through her eyes, not simply Galileo the scientist, philosopher and martyr but also Galileo concerned about his son, his wine casks, his weak health, and his financial and other day to day affairs. We learn about the affairs of the convent and about the steady stream of medicines prepared by Maria Celeste—who was the apothecary to the convent—which she supplied to her much loved father.

The back drop of the letters adds a new and beautiful dimension to the story. In the history of Christianity, the book of Nature has been widely recognised, alongside the book of scripture, as a source of truth and enlightenment. The story of Galileo was not the first occasion of conflict between the two (Maria Celeste was born in the year that Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in Rome), nor was it the last; the conflict continues today.

The trial of Galileo is often viewed as the beginning of the split between science and religion, but Galileo’s main supporters as well as his opponents were within the church. It was very much an internal wrangle and Galileo himself never wavered in his faith in the basic doctrines of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, the trial of Galileo has achieved the status of a pivotal event and about half of Dava Sobel’s account is about the writing and publication of Galileo’s controversial book, Dialogue, concerning the two Chief Systems of the World, Ptolemaic and Copernican.

Dava Sobel has written a beautiful book. The interplay of Galileo’s story with the letters from his daughter brings the period and the events to life in a way that I found fascinating. I couldn’t put it down.