Galileo’s Daughter Meets God and the Astronomers: When Faith and Science Confront Infinite Mystery

Science, faith and love: each a mystery worthy of a human mind’s complete preoccupation. Their interplay is enchanting in Galileo’s Daughter, a historical memoir masterfully woven by former New York Times science writer Dava Sobel.

Galileo's Daughter

I’ve owned the book since it was first published but it remained on my shelf until last summer, when keeping a resolution to include books I already own but haven’t read as I plan what to read next, it seemed the perfect time to read a book that would enhance my wonder in the mysteries of the skies.

It did that and much more.  Galileo’s Daughter is a historical wonderland, a window into the world that had just discovered the telescope’s revelations, an intimate portrait of a genius and his family and a step-by-step unfolding of the controversy which, over the centuries, has been oversimplified into hardly more than “science good, religion bad.”

The real story is more complicated than your history teacher had time to tell you.

Portrait believed to be Galileo’s Daughter, Suor Maria Celeste

If you’re curious, you must read this book; its riches cannot be adequately conveyed in a few paragraphs. Galileo’s Daughter is a stellar triumph; a beautifully written and illustrated, masterfully detailed mix of science, history and pure wonder.

Sobel neither skewers nor whitewashes the Church with which Galileo had a devoted but volatile relationship.

Instead, she has chosen to tell Galileo’s story, to offer a fresh undertanding of the man and his times through her own translation (the first in English) of 124 letters Galileo’s oldest daughter wrote to her famous father. 

Virginia Galilei (who would become Suor Maria Celeste in a nod to her father’s preoccupation with the skies) adds a pious and personal thread to the tale so often told in stark, cartoonish terms.

Virginia was the first of three children (two daughters and a son) born to Maria Gamba, whom Galileo chose not to marry for reasons of class. The year Virginia turned 13, Galileo, concerned for his daughters’ limited prospects as illegitimate children, arranged for them to live in a Clarisse convent, where Virginia would evenually take vows and where she would remain for the rest of her short life.

Tintoretto’s portrait of Galileo

Throughout these years father and daughter were in almost constant contact by letter. Sobel finds “no detectable strife” in their relationship, and Galileo would describe his daughter as
“a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me.”

The affection Suor Maria Celeste’s letters reveal is palpable. Father and daughter are concerned for each other’s health, for the details of daily life, for the wedding plans of Vicentio, Galileo’s son, and the faith to which they both adhered in very different ways. Behind the convent walls where she proved a capable manager, cook, apothecary and nurse, Galileo’s daughter remained devoted to her father’s work and at times transcribed his writings.

Sobel detects in Suor Maria Celeste’s letters a forgotten fact: Galileo and his daughter didn’t operate under a stark “faith vs. science” dichotomy the way many critics of the Church currently describe the controversy. The situation was as complex as the starry heavens the scientist’s constantly improving telescopes were revealing.

Galileo studied and published with incredible energy. Though he did not invent the telescope, he relentlessly worked on perfecting lenses, the better to view the night sky. Long before his famous trial, he spoke of the “satellites” he observed around the planet Jupiter, and this was one of many occasions which illustrate the jealousy of his scientific peers:

[O]ther astronomers complained of struggling just to catch a sight of the Jovian satellites through inferior instruments, and therefore they questioned the bodies’ very existence. Despite Kepler’s endorsement, some sniped that the moons must be optical illusions, suspiciously introduced into the sky by Galileo’s lenses.

Galileo exported as many telescopes as he could for use across the European continent, “to have truth seen and recognized…by as many people as possible.” He had the support of some scientists and theologians from the outset and the ire of many others.

While the heliocentric theory remained unproven for some time after it was put forth by the Catholic Copernicus, it was accepted by some churchmen and rejected by others; it was accepted by some scientists and rejected by others as well. 

“Galileo,” Sobel writes, “gradually convinced himself that the Copernican system not only looked neater on paper but likely held true in fact.” She shows the complex interplay of 17th century personalities with all their varied motives for defending Aristotlelian geocentricism or for siding with the heliocentric revolution.

Reading Galileo’s Daughter, I realized that Galileo’s story has a fascinating 20th century correlary, told in astrophysicist Robert Jastrow’s God and the Astronomers.

In 1978, observing the transition between the reigning Steady State theory (that the Universe had always existed in its current state) to the Big Bang theory (suggested by the glow of radiation Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson meaured in 1965), the agnostic Jastrow found a curious resistance among his allegedly objective scientific colleagues.

The problem? Theologians were delighted with the new theory, which corroborated their belief that the Universe has a beginning, a beginning in a burst of light.

Many of Jastrow’s scientific colleagues found this possibility distasteful and tried desperately to find another explanation. “It turns out,” Jastrow notes, “that:

[T]he scientist behaves the way the rest of us do when our beliefs are in conflict with the evidence. We become irritated, we pretend the conflict does not exist, or we paper over it with meaningless phrases.

That’s worth pondering as we return to the 17th century and the scientist who, in relentlessly pursuing heliocentricism, would force, in Maria Popova’s wonderful phrase, a “revolution with no rewind.”

Through a series of complicated intrigues in which Galileo’s enemies achieved influence over the pope, Urban VIII forbade Galileo to teach the theory as fact, and for a while, as the issue consumed European scientists, intellectuals, politicians and theologians both Catholic and Protestant (Martin Luther rejected heliocentricism), Galileo obeyed.

But Suor Maria’s father was not only a brilliant Catholic, he was also impatient, ornery and impetuous.

When given papal permission to publish a book containing both sides of the heliocentric controversy, Galileo put Urban’s words in the mouth of a ridiculous character named Simplicio. Power and pride often go together, and Urban was understandably outraged.

Moon phases drawing by Galileo Galilei

At his trial Galileo was found guilty. His sentence was immediately commuted. He was never imprisoned but had freedom of movement in a limited house arrest.

Galileo was given the recitation of the penitential psalms as a three-year penance of prayer. Suor Maria Celeste appealed to ecclesial authorities for permission to make the prayers in his place, a sacrifice she undertook with love as only a daughter could. The two continued corresponding until poor health overtook the young nun and at age 33, Suor Maria Celeste died, leaving a much bereaved father.

Sobel tells the story so well she brought me to tears.

Galileo himself lived into his eighties writing, publishing and researching. I finished Sobel’s book in absolute awe of the man’s genius, a mind that wouldn’t stop when his faculties weakened and he became completely blind.

Galileo’s Daughter illuminates a refreshing but unsurprising possibility:  that science and faith sometimes seem opposed due to the limits of available data and the vagaries of human beings caught up in competition, politics and power.  The judgment of scientists as well as churchmen can cloud truth as we ultimately come to understand it because both groups are flawed.

Galileo in Old Age

There’s also this: science and religion are addressing very different questions. One studies evidence that can be measured, but only with the instruments available in a given age. Scientists are always at the mercy of accessible data, and their theories are only as good as the instruments of their time.

Theologians are integrating historical, physical and metaphysical (beyond physical) truth. The Church acknowledges that God’s totality is ultimately beyond us, but His revelation in space and time can be pursued in a way that advances our understanding of His mystery. As new data arrives, theologians, like scientists, must address it. This requires a humble recognition that our knowledge always remains incomplete.

But humility before celestial mysteries isn’t always present among humans desperate to control debates. The story of our grapples with new evidence is, for both scientists and theologians, messy and sometimes downright ugly. You can’t take the humanity out of human beings, whether they believe the universe is created by God or deny a creator and struggle when data contradicts the system that supports that belief.

Catholic historian Steve Weidenkopf offers a helpful reminder:

[T]he Church teaching that reason is a gift of God, and that nature is orderly and intelligible, is what made possible the explosion of scientific discovery and knowledge in Christian Europe.

Galileo and his daughter lived in the time of these exponential advances and were caught in all the intrigues of its players.

The foibles of men hurt their hearts but did not deter their faith. Both father and daughter are a testament to scientific discovery but also to the forgotten tenacity of that faith and the eternal power of their love.


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Related post: The Truth is in the Stars…or Is Faith the Final Frontier?

Brainpicking’s wonderful A Revolution With No Rewind: Galileo’s Daughter and How the Patron Saint of Astronomy Reconciled Science and Spirituality.

Some 40 years before Penzias and Wilson confirmed the Big Bang theory, Edwin Hubble reported that “the redshift in light coming from distant galaxies is proportional to their distance.” Hubble’s observations supported Beligian mathematcian, scientist and Catholic priest Georges Lemaître’s theory of an expanding universe, now known as the “Big Bang.” Read more here.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash. All other illustrations courtesy of Wikipedia. and Wikimedia Commons.

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