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

(New York: Walker and Company, 1999)

In her runaway bestseller, Dava Sobel brings a fresh perspective to the sometimes acrimonious and often tedious debates about the "proper" relationship between science and religion. Rather than debate, she tells a story -- one that breathes new vitality into our understanding of scientific thinking, of our approach to the natural world, and how these two can uphold, challenge, and increase both our faith and our theology.

The book attracts us, first, by the surprising revelation that Galileo had a daughter -- two, in fact -- and that both were cloistered Franciscan nuns. The recent discovery and translation of the letters written by his eldest daughter, Suor Maria Celeste (whose chosen religious name honored her father's early astronomical discoveries) to her beloved father opened a door into his interior life, both as a man of science and a man of faith.

Sobel's careful research probes beyond the well-known story of Galileo's trial before the Inquisition and forced recantation of his work Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican. Presented with details of Galileo's many research projects, the reader can understand how little was known about the physical world. The movement of the sun, moon, and stars were mysterious, as were the tides, fluctuations in weather, and periodic outbreaks of plague. 

In an age when incoming undergraduates are expected to have basic skills in critical thinking and exposure to scientific methods of observation and experimentation, the world Sobel portrays seems distant and hard to believe. One of the primary achievements of this book, helpful for both faculty and students, is the degree to which Sobel enables us to enter into this world. She captures both the immense curiosity and perseverance of these early scientists. Their experiments, which might now be considered high school lab exercises, took months or years of thought and preparation -- and the effort required to develop scientific methodology was equally challenging.

As the story of Galileo's life unfolds, Sobel highlights the inadequacy of the methods of philosophy to deal with the new questions posed by observation of the natural world. Rather than the ardent atheistic scientist often portrayed, we encounter a man with a deep faith in a creating God, the Catholic Church, the truth of its teachings, and Sacred Scripture. Both his faith and his intellect were ahead of their time. In a letter to his student, the Benedictine monk Castelli, Galileo wrote, "Holy Scripture and Nature are both emanations from the divine word: the former dictated by the Holy Spirit, the latter the observant executrix of God's commands." Galileo articulated a view of Scripture which would eventually become the accepted view within Catholic circles -- but not until very much later. "I believe that the intention of Holy Writ was to persuade men of the truths necessary for salvation, such as neither science nor any other means could render credible, but only the voice of the Holy Spirit. But I do not think it necessary to believe that the same God who gave us our senses, our speech, our intellect, would have put aside the use of these, to teach us instead such things as with their help we could find out for ourselves, particularly in the case of these sciences of which there is not the smallest mention in the Scriptures."  

With Galileo, we find the beginning of the controversy still evident today over the way in which Scripture is to be read and understood. The parallels to modern debates are many: the entrenched positions of academics unwilling to consider new methods or viewpoints, the influence of politically powerful yet less educated individuals, competition between rival theological viewpoints (especially, at this dawn of the Reformation, between the forms of science accepted by Protestant and Catholic ecclesial bodies), the importance of personal friendships and rivalries, and the use of strategy and counter-strategy to promote various scientific and religious ends. Within this context, the search for truth -- which seems to have genuinely motivated both Galileo and at least some of his detractors -- is overwhelmed by other concerns.

This book has much to offer faculty and students in whose disciplines faith and religion may appear to come into conflict. No controversy remains regarding the Copernican view. In fact, for decades Catholic scholars suffered criticism for the condemnation of Galileo, criticism which was revived more than healed by Pope John Paul's 1992 endorsement of Galileo's philosophy. Happily, the controversy has ended, making the book an appropriate tool for discussing the role of scripture and science. The same methods of scriptural interpretation used to condemn Galileo are at the heart of modern controversies especially regarding creationism and evolutionary theory. In the historical context, the utility and failings of those methods can be discussed separately from the hot-button issues.

The second delightful aspect of reading this book is a re-awakening of the sense of wonder at the intricacy of nature. In rehabilitating Galileo's philosophy, John Paul II said, "intelligibility, attested to by the marvelous discoveries of science and technology, leads us, in the last analysis, to that transcendent and primordial thought imprinted on all things." Galileo's questions of "why?" and "how?" produced deeply felt curiosity, profound wonder, and an energetic pursuit of knowledge grounded in faith that, as Saint Edith Stein would say centuries later, "all who seek truth, seek God, whether they know it or not." Dava Sobel's masterful writing renders our commonplace, high-school knowledge new again.

The final and most novel aspect of Galileo's life is the glimpse provided into the network of relationships in which his ideas took shape. The care and comfort of his daughter, her encouragement and belief both in his work and his goodness, even through his trials, was evidently of immense help to Galileo. The surprise which Sobel reveals only at the end of the book underscores the much more modern notion that no academic work is a solitary endeavor, but rather is supported and influenced by companionship of kindred minds and spirits.

Many Collegium participants may have read reviews or heard interviews with the author -- and planned to read it "sometime." Those who move it off that back burner will be well rewarded. -- Erna-Lynne Bogue, '99