Dava Sobel is perhaps my favourite non-fiction author. She has this ability to discuss the history of science in an enlightening and inspiring way. Her books make these historical figures come alive. While Galileo is far better known than the subjects of her more recent The Glass Universe, Sobel takes a new approach to biography of him by including letters from his daughter, Maria Celeste. Though I’m not sure the amount of letters and focus on her is enough to earn the book its title, I’m willing to stipulate the conceit because the book is otherwise luscious.
Sobel begins with the usual tour of Galileo’s youth before digging into his decades of productive discovery, invention, experimentation, and writing. The emphasis here is less on the scientific nature of Galileo’s work and more on the political and social context in which Galileo performed it. Hence, while Sobel will mention the science that Galileo advances, she doesn’t go into a great deal of detail about how that science works. This is far more of a history book than a science book (and I’m ok with that).
What I most enjoyed about Sobel’s approach is the way she grounds Galileo’s life in the history of the Italian states and the Catholic Church (which is reeling from the ramifications of the Reformation). We’ve rather mythologized Galileo, down to his defiant yet apocryphal, “And yet it moves!” that he was supposed to have uttered at his sentencing. Sobel tackles Galileo the myth, deconstructs it, and shows us Galileo the man. Through Maria Celeste’s letters, we see Galileo the father and convent benefactor. From the writings of cardinals and other correspondents, we see Galileo the gentleman philosopher. From the transcripts of his trials, we see Galileo the penitent Catholic. Galileo did not consider himself a heretic, and he didn’t even particularly see himself as a rebel—he did his best to adhere to the guidelines set down by the Church. His sin, if you will, was simply that he wanted to share his science with the rest of the world.
The account of Galileo’s decades-long tussle with the Church feels particularly relevant in today’s era of cancel culture. Some of us take for granted how unfettered our speech is (at least in my corner of the world). I can, if I choose, write whatever I want on this website I have built myself, and I could even pay someone to print and bind my words in hard copy if I wanted to do that. Galileo, in contrast, needed permission from his local archbishop before he could publish anything, lest he spread heresy (and if you’ve read Areopagitica then you know the Catholic countries were not alone in this restriction). That is truly cancel culture, folx. Galileo’s work was literally cancelled by the authorities of the time, as opposed to today, where you can truly heinous things and face little in the way of consequences, let alone cancellation.
The historical context of Galileo’s struggle also helps 21st century readers understand why his work was such a big deal. It’s not precisely that what he wrote in his Dialogues was heretical. It was more about certain people in the Church, including the once-friendly Pope Urban, being concerned with maintaining the power base of the Church in the face of an increasing number of restless Protestant states. Galileo was writing in a time of great religious and also political upheaval, particularly the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia and the resulting modern definition of a sovereign state. So unlike the simplistic version we might have heard in school—that the Church feared Galileo had “proved” the Bible was wrong—the truth is more along the lines that Galileo’s writing was too independent. He published in lay Italian rather than Latin, which meant more common people could read it, and the Dialogues themselves—regardless of their content—encouraged a kind of philosophical critical thinking that threatened the Church’s grip on people’s minds. This was Galileo’s threat: he might make people think, not just about whether the Earth orbits the Sun or vice versa, but about the political structures in which they were embedded.
Lest you think Sobel focuses too much on the big picture, however, never fear: she also focuses on the minutiae of Florentine (or Roman) life. This is where Maria Celeste’s letters come in. Some might scoff at including these details—why do we need to know about the purchase of some cloth for the convent, how much it cost, what Maria Celeste baked for her father with some fruits he sent her … does that really matter in the story of one of history’s Great Men? Yes, Sobel argues—and I agree—because we need to dismantle this idea of Great Men. Behind Great Men are not just Great Women but entire communities of people of all genders. Galileo had a large extended family, some of whom lived with him at various points in his chronically ill life. He had a housekeeper, a valet, apprentices. He had daughters, one of whom wrote frequently to him. These details matter because they remind us that history happens not because of a single great person forging ahead alone but rather because individuals and groups of individuals have the support and privilege required to make, in this case, scientific discoveries.
Moreover, these details help us understand what life was like in Galileo’s day. Nowadays travel between Rome and Florence is a routine matter of hours. In Galileo’s time, it would take weeks and might involve being quarantined because of plague in one or both cities! Indeed, the spectre of the bubonic plague is an important one in this book, and Sobel reminds us of how many lives were cut short. She could not have anticipated that, a decade after publication, I would be reading this during a pandemic in which “quarantine” became a household word. Yeah, that brought up some feels….
This is yet another marvelous work of history from a master of it. I learned a lot about Galileo, but more importantly, I learned far more about Galileo’s time and the people in it, which helped me understand his contributions to science in a way that merely learning the science itself cannot. That’s the power of these history of science books, and Sobel’s decision to include English translations of letters that had heretofore remained generally untranslated and obscure gives us a unique window into Galileo’s daily life and needs. I, for one, appreciate how this humanizes someone we might otherwise be tempted to turn into a giant.
Scientific progress, not to mention social progress, is far from linear. Galileo was censored in his time and remained so for centuries. Along the way, we saw some people make great strides forward in science, other people try to undo that progress. We’re seeing that even now, in our own time. I hope this book offers us lessons of our past that we can apply to our present as we work to build a better, fairer, more open future of discovery.