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Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love
by Dava Sobel

Published: 2000-11-01
Paperback : 432 pages
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17 clubs reading this now
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Recommended to book clubs by 3 of 3 members
Galileo Galilei's telescopes allowed him to discover a new reality in the heavens. But for publicly declaring his astounding argument--that the earth revolves around the sun--he was accused of heresy and put under house arrest by the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Living a far different ...
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While Galileo Galilei was under house arrest, accused of heresy for his claim that the earth revolved around the sun, his daughter Virginia, a cloistered nun, proved to be her father's greatest source of strength through the difficult years of his trial and persecution. Winner of the Christopher Award and named a Notable Book of the Year by the "New York Times". Illustrations.

Editorial Review

Everyone knows that Galileo Galilei dropped cannonballs off the leaning tower of Pisa, developed the first reliable telescope, and was convicted by the Inquisition for holding a heretical belief--that the earth revolved around the sun. But did you know he had a daughter? In Galileo's Daughter, Dava Sobel (author of the bestselling Longitude) tells the story of the famous scientist and his illegitimate daughter, Sister Maria Celeste. Sobel bases her book on 124 surviving letters to the scientist from the nun, whom Galileo described as "a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and tenderly attached to me." Their loving correspondence revealed much about their world: the agonies of the bubonic plague, the hardships of monastic life, even Galileo's occasional forgetfulness ("The little basket, which I sent you recently with several pastries, is not mine, and therefore I wish you to return it to me").

While Galileo tangled with the Church, Maria Celeste--whose adopted name was a tribute to her father's fascination with the heavens--provided moral and emotional support with her frequent letters, approving of his work because she knew the depth of his faith. As Sobel notes, "It is difficult today ... to see the Earth at the center of the Universe. Yet that is where Galileo found it." With her fluid prose and graceful turn of phrase, Sobel breathes life into Galileo, his daughter, and the earth-centered world in which they lived. --Sunny Delaney


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Discussion Questions

Questions from the Publisher's Reading Guide:
1. Suor Maria Celeste repeatedly asks Galileo for money in her letters, often apologetically. How does the tone and assuredness of these requests change over the course of the correspondence? Do you think Galileo was generous with his daughter? Is there any evidence that he refused any of her requests? How well did she manage his affairs when he was in Rome answering to the Holy Office of the Inquisition?

2. How do you envision the day-to-day routine in San Matteo in the years that Galileo's daughters lived there (see especially chapter 11)? Which of its deprivations were most trying for Suor Maria Celeste and her sisters in faith? How did a woman who never left the convent become so well-versed in the affairs of the world?

3. Under pressure from religious groups, the Kansas State Board of Education decided in 1999 to remove evolution and the big bang theory from the state-mandated curriculum. The move was opposed by a group named FLAT (Families for Learning Accurate Theories), a reference to the idea that the earth must be flat. Discuss the conflict between science and religion in Galileo's lifetime and ours. How have religious beliefs affected public policy concerning genetic engineering, cloning, and education?

4. Galileo's correspondence with his daughter reveals the value of many items in Renaissance Florence, from wheat and wine to thread and wedding dresses to Vincenzio's monthly allowance. Which were relatively costly, which inexpensive? How did their price compare to the value of a good farm, Galileo's first salary as a math professor, his rent in Bellosguardo and Arcetri, and the cost of a private room in the convent?

5. Why did Pope Urban VIII, once Galileo's ally, ultimately turn against him? How did external factors (the Thirty Years' War, alliances with France and Spain) affect his relationship with the scientist?

6. Galileo seems to have suffered from hernias, gout, and glaucoma. His elder daughter was plagued by headaches and tooth decay, and the younger may well have experienced major depression. How were these medical illnesses regarded during their lifetimes? What kind of home remedies did they use? How were doctors and surgeons regarded by the public at large and by Galileo?

7. The bubonic plague has been known for at least 3,000 years, and in the Middle Ages it depopulated entire cities. How did it touch the lives of Galileo and his family? Today plague still occurs in remote parts of Asia, Africa, South America, and even parts of the United States, but most cases can be treated with timely doses of antibiotics. What sorts of remedies—chemical, herbal, and religious—did Galileo and his daughters use to ward it off?

8. Galileo was famously wrong in his explanation of what causes tides. He thought, in essence, that the spinning of the earth caused the waters to slosh about their basins. Why did he dismiss the observation of his contemporary Johannes Kepler that the tides were related to the movements of the moon?

9. How do you think Galileo would react to the news that Pope John Paul II had called for a reexamination of his affair?

10. Given the suggestion in one of Suor Maria Celeste's letters that she wrote out the final manuscript for Galileo's Dialogue, how do you imagine the two of them might have worked together? How do you think each of them expected the final product to be received?

11. Viewed in this age of televised court cases, what did you think of the legal process of Galileo's trial?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

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Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Thank God for the written word"by Malee H. (see profile) 09/22/15

Galileo's daughter was a remarkable woman. His story is impressive but hers is incredible considering the times and circumstances of her life. How sad that her writings were destroyed.

  "Galileo's Daughter"by Helen D. (see profile) 09/21/15

Most members found the book to be thought-provoking and very interesting. It's beautifully written and a new way to think of one of history's most brilliant scientists.

  "great nonfiction"by Abby T. (see profile) 07/28/11

  "Was not novel-like, didn't offer insights into Galileo"by Denise T. (see profile) 09/06/08

Book was written like a textbook, very technical.

  "sparked some great topics for discussion but the book itself got a "thumbs down""by Judith H. (see profile) 09/06/08

Unfortunately, the verdict on our book pick Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel was a resounding "thumbs down".

From Sobel's title we had had high hopes and expectations that we would ga

... (read more)

  "This is a look into the brilliant yet plodding mind of Galileo's daughter."by Mary M. (see profile) 04/17/07

Plodding only because she had to be to live the way she needed to so her family could remain as intact as possible. Brilliant because she was the backbone behind Galileo, one of the most br... (read more)

  "Our book club had a difficult time getting through the book"by Sharon P. (see profile) 09/19/06

I found the book to be a challenge to read. It was more about Galileo and other scientists/philosophers than his relationship with his daughter. I was intrigued by how much Galileo contributed to the... (read more)

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