Sunday, March 19, 2017

Galileo's Daughter

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and LoveGalileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent science biography from the Ambleside Online Year 9 curriculum. I'm trying to pre-read more of the Ambleside books before my children get to them. This is a book that I had wanted to read when it first was published, but I never got around to it.

I had a mistaken notion that Galileo's daughter was also a scientist. She was not. She was born Virginia Galilei in Padua in 1600. Galileo never married her mother, though she bore him three children. Her sister Livia was born a year later and her brother Vincenzio was born in 1606. The two daughters entered the convent in Arcetri while the son was later legitimized by arrangements his father made with church officials. Suor Maria Celeste (Virginia) and Suor Arcangela (Livia) spent most of their lives in the Convent of San Matteo. The convent was of the Order of Saint Clare, known for their vows of extreme poverty modeled on Saint Francis of Assisi. The sisters lived through several rounds of plague outbreaks in Italy and were continually on the verge of starvation. Don't girls always get the best treatment? ... but that's another story.

Dava Sobel uses the letters from Suor Maria Celeste to her famous father to chart the course of his later life. This approach humanizes a figure who was subsequently painted in heroic proportions by his admirers. Galileo's struggle with the Inquisition and censors of his treatises on the revolutionary Copernican heliocentric worldview are the stuff of scientific legend. Galileo the man was not quite so heroic, but who can blame him? When your opponents can torture or kill you for disagreeing with them, it's usually advisable to take a pragmatic approach to dialog.

There were a number of passages that I highlighted throughout the book. My absolute favorite is one tending more towards philosophy than science, but the two were much more closely related in Galileo's time.

"The deeper I go in considering the vanities of popular reasoning, the lighter and more foolish I find them. What greater stupidity can be imagined than that of calling jewels, silver, and gold "precious," and earth and soil "base"? People who do this ought to remember that if there were as great a scarcity of soil as of jewels or precious metals, there would not be a prince who would not spend a bushel of diamonds and rubies and a cartload of gold just to have enough earth to plant a jasmine in a little pot, or to sow an orange seed and watch it sprout, grow, and produce its handsome leaves, its fragrant flowers, and fine fruit. It is scarcity and plenty that make the vulgar take things to be precious or worthless; they call a diamond very beautiful because it is like pure water, and then would not exchange one for ten barrels of water. Those who so greatly exalt incorruptibility, inalterability, etc. are reduced to talking this way, I believe, by their great desire to go on living, and by the terror they have of death. These individuals do not reflect that if men were immortal, they themselves would never have come into the world. Such men really deserve to encounter a Medusa's head which would transmute them into statues of jasper or of diamond, and thus make them more perfect than they are." --Galileo's "Dialogue" translated by Stillman Drake

Apart from refusing to suffer fools gladly, unless instructed by the Inquisition to do so, Galileo is cemented in my memory with this quote:

"Galileo prided himself on having been the first to build a proper telescope and point it toward the sky. But he believed his own greater genius lay in his ability to observe the world at hand, to understand the behavior of its parts, and to describe those in terms of mathematical proportions." (326)

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