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5.0 out of 5 starsA must read for every change agent
Reviewed in the United States on November 1, 2017
One of my favorite books. It's touching, it's educational, and it's absolutely hilarious at points. If you are at all involved in making change happen and run into obstacles, read this. and.. by the way, Sobel does a very good job at the whole story behind the Pope's difficulty with Galileo's work.
Galileo was an extraordinary scientist. Not least because of his revolutionary inventions, insights, and discoveries, but because he was a scientist in the professional sense. He refused blindly to accept received wisdom, he championed the experimental approach of laboriously testing theories against observations and keeping meticulous records. While this made him great, it also made him controversial. Galileo's enemies were legion within academia and in the church hierarchy. Galileo scorned one nemesis, Grassi and his reliance on majority votes to arrive at truth, noting, "Even in conclusions which can be known only by reasoning, I say that the testimony of many has little more value than that of few, since the number of people who reason well in complicated matters is much smaller than that of those who reason badly." Today's sophists stacking opinions atop each other seeking truth about, say, global warming or AIDS could usefully read these words. He adds, "I believe that good philosophers fly alone, like eagles, and not in flocks like starlings. It is true that because eagles are rare birds they are little seen and less heard, while birds that fly like starlings fill the sky with shrieks and cries, and wherever they settle befoul the earth beneath them." Sobel's research and excellent story-telling skills, her smooth blending of Maria Celeste's letters with accounts of Medicean Florence throw a light on Galileo's life and times. Caught between rigid church doctrine, expanding scientific knowledge, terrors of the plague, great dynasties, and cataclysmic wars, Galileo not only stood at an intersection of western history, but in many ways he created it. Galileo was ambitious (cunningly plotting for a place in the Medici court), sickly (missing months and years of research and writing because of his ailments), and bored with intellectual lightweights. He was a brilliant writer and a precise logician. His explanations of his discoveries were as powerful as the science itself. The description of Galileo's trial clarifies an event we thought we knew about. Galileo is tired, timid, and chastened. At 70, is is simply old. It is unlikely that he muttered, or even thought, the words "Still it moves" as some revisionists suggest. His book, "Dialogue", was previously twice approved by church censors, yet he was convicted at his 1634 inquisition trial for its contents. ("Dialogue" remained banned by the church for 200 years.) He recanted, but not from falsity or cowardice, the case is more complicated than that. The Galileo in these pages is a good Catholic who does his utmost to follow doctrine. He seeks and abides by church rulings, knowing that his work is at the limits of its teachings. He never mocks nor criticizes the church but venerates it. His science becomes a tragedy as his developing understanding of the universe, based on his reading of Copernicus and his own observations and reflections, place him in an awkward position. For what he realizes is true is different from what he wants to be true. It is no longer enough for him to hold Copernicus' model as "supposition", he knows it to be fact. This book only touches upon the more difficult question of why the Catholic church insists on clinging to obsolete theories and disproved models, undermining its own authority and turning its wisest adherents into enemies. Or why the church should take a position in a scientific debate at all. The church's position was one of gripping rigidly to the teachings of two non-Christians, Aristotle and Ptolemy, as well as a few isolated lines of scripture, because the hierarchy apparently decided, wrongly as it is now obvious, that Ptolemy's views were integral to the verities of Christianity. "Galileo's Daughter" is wonderful. It is a biography of a filial relationship drawn from a daughter's loving letters. It is a window looking in on the impoverished day to day life of a 17th century convent with its concerns for lemons and pillowcases, and a far larger window looking out on 17th century Europe.
5.0 out of 5 starsEntrancing & fabulous -- with a stunning ending!
Reviewed in the United States on January 10, 2001
* Of course I'm not going to give the ending away.
* However erudite I might smugly think I am about the merits of well-written non-fiction, I was simply blown away by the emotional firepower of the conclusion of this book.
* I have been to Florence many times, and have visited the Church of Santa Croce during each visit, where Galileo's tomb resides today on the same floor as the legendary Michelangelo and Machiavelli.
* If I had read something like Sobel's book 10 years ago, it would have sparked a burst of emotions heretofore missing in those visits, similar to splashing a million colors onto a blank canvas, or in the case of Galileo's tomb, injecting life onto a slab of colorless marble.
* The amazing beauty of this work is that it reads like a novel, or more to the point, it paints pictures reminiscent of the language of cinema. It is historical, factual and meticulous. Yet it is not TOO detailed.
* Unlike typical historical treatments of people whose accomplishments are regarded so magnificent that they are automatically given an entrance ticket into the pantheon of immortality, Sobel's story of Galileo and his relationship with his daughter is engrossing, spellbinding and bereft of the technical minutiae that bogs down many works of non-fiction.
* Too often, authors attempting to bring life to the thoughts and actions of great figures, go so overboard with tiny details that they undercut their own efforts. They disrupt the narrative momentum so critical to good old fashioned story-telling. There's nothing worse than to read half way down a page and then realize that you missed everything crammed so badly into two paragraphs that you're forced to read them again.
* "Galileo's Daughter" is a work of non-fiction and an easy read, despite its potentially forbidding subject. While much verbiage is expended about the master's fight to prove Copernicus' theory of a sun-centered galaxy, in the face of recriminations and potential persecutions from the Catholic Church, the author's method of tackling this issue is unlike anything you will ever find in a boring textbook. The result is pure entertainment, like watching a drama about a clash of ideas and egos, the stuff movies are made of.
* After a while, you are lulled into thinking that the title of Sobel's book is merely a subtext to what is really Galileo's story. His daughter's letters simply humanize the "legend" of Galileo, transforming him into a domestic, a real person, a parent with the normal concerns for his children. For all of his cranial powers, Galileo is not so self-absorbed that he abrogates his responsibilities as a father. He comes off as a concerned parent who endeavors to provide the best for his children.
* But then the twist! You think you know where this story is going because after all, this is a work of non-fiction! But you're wrong!
* By the end of "Galileo's Daughter," author Sobel finds an ingenious way to circle back to what is inferred by the title of his book, despite the preponderance of words expended on Galileo himself.
* The result is a stunner.
* If you buy this book, and I recommend you do, DON'T cheat and go to its last few pages. If you do, you'll deprive yourself of the emotional impact of a revelation that may be common knowledge to some, but in reality is obscure to the greater body of people who think they know history.
* "Galileo's Daughter" is a marvelous achievement. If all non-fiction works were written this way, I'd stop going to the movies.
I read this a while ago, and bought another copy to re-read on a recent trip to Italy. It's a stimulating account of how Galileo developed his ideas in physics, engineering and astronomy, by interpreting and explaining observations. Because of this, he's acknowledged (by, for example, Albert Einstein) as the originator of the scientific method. But this book also delves into his private life: most compellingly, his relationship with his elder daughter, who entered an enclosed order at the age of 13 and was ordained a nun three years later. Her memory survives because of the letters she wrote to her father (his part of the correspondence has been lost); these form much of the basis of this book.
They provide a lively, charming insight into the famous scientist's life: she was devoted to her father and, while working as the convent's apothecary, would send him treatments for his ailments. She also supervised the running of his household: there's illuminating detail about everyday things like socks, wine and donkeys. In return, he supported her convent with financial and practical aid as best he could.
Galileo is probably best-known for his conflict with the church over his views on heliocentrism; this was condemned by the Inquisition, his book on the subject was banned and he was placed under house arrest. The details about this affair are carefully presented here, including the fact that Galileo was a devout member of the church (as, of course, was his daughter), and that to view the conflict as simply between science and faith would be to miss important details - for example, many churchmen (further away from Rome) support Galileo in his views.
This is an interesting, stimulating and moving book: recommended.
4.0 out of 5 starsPuts your mindset back into 17th century Italy
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on September 12, 2015
I came across this book, not through a review in the press or through Amazon, but as a consequence of being invited to a concert earlier this year which featured an attractive contemporary choral work, "The Starry Messenger", inspired by the book and written by American composer Glenn McClure. The book is excellent, with a very well balanced combination of Sor Marie Celeste’s letters and the author’s well researched commentary. The letters leading up to and concerning the Galileo’s trial are particularly illuminating and help the reader to put the mindset back into the very different world of 17th century Tuscany and Rome. No attempt is made to impose any views taken from a 21st century perspective: the reader is allowed to draw his or her own conclusions, for example about about the behaviour of the Roman Catholic Church or that of Galileo himself. Through her letters Sor Marie Celeste comes across as intelligent and perceptive, and by the end of the book you feel that you have got to know this attractive personality. The book is in effect a biography of Galileo worked within the framework of the letters, from which both the man and the scientist emerge. Not a fast read, but well worth the effort.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 15, 2019
I already have a copy of this book and bought this copy as a Christmas gift for a friend. Not alone is it a beautiful book so well written and written with such warmth but my son who studied philosophy at university found it most useful and was hard put to return my copy to me. I will not part with this book.
5.0 out of 5 starsA masterpiece of historical biography
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 12, 2014
Among the books I've really loved recently I'd group this one with Sobel's own "Longitude" and Gleich's "Isaac Newton". Even Mantel's couple of Cromwell dramatic biography novels. So, is Masterpiece a superlative too far? I'd argue that one of the outstanding achievements of this book is her love of the two main characters. This is lightyears away from a dry historical repositioning. At the end, Galileo's coffin is finally moved to a place worthy of the man's stature, and Sobel has done the same, to both father and daughter. The contribution of these people is to be finally recognised, and that is a worthy premise for a book and a writer.
Sobel maintains and defends the man's dignity and reminds us that in observation, concept, theory, evidence and proof the was consistently accurate, in a period of human history when such things were rare or unheard of. In response to his critics and specifically those who campaigned to suppress his enlightening discoveries he argued robustly and with immense strength of character and courage. Despite long periods of personal suffering he dedicated his life to creating significant works, bringing mankind into a new era of understanding.
If all of that were not enough, Sobel throws open the door to 16th and 17th century life in a cloistered convent, a spiritual prison for non-marriable girls. The poverty and denial over a short period would test any modern sensibility, but these women spent their lives suffering and providing what little they had to share with other people. Sobel quotes the daughter's letters and reveals the devotion and love which somehow sustained both of them, and her own many talents.
I loved this book. Not a single sentence was irrelevant, every thread of context, every name, family lineage, outbreak of the plague, his books and works, the discoveries and innovation, it's all there to describe a life, a lifetime of a genius, the father of modern science. Her understanding of historical context is magnificent. It's a work of art.
An excellent informative and well researched account of the life of Galileo. Highlighting his scientific discoveries, his relationship with his elder daughter and his struggles trying to break through the entrenched and long standing dogma of the all powerful religion at the time. A fascinating and informative book .