Galileo: Scientific Crusader, Father

I just finished reading Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel. I seem to be on a bit of a scientific history kick this year, since my last book review was along similar lines. In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed this book as well. Despite the title, the book does not truly focus on Galileo’s daughter, Suor Marie Celeste, because, well, she was a nun in the rather ascetic order of the Poor Clares, and her day to day life was probably not that different than most other nuns. What made her life unique was being the eldest, and favorite, child of Galileo. Over the years, she maintained a very lively correspondence with her father, and despite being cloistered, became the administrator of her father’s affairs during the course of his prolonged trial in Rome. 

Though Galileo’s letters to S. Marie Celeste are missing, her letters to him allow Sobel to enhance her presentation of the life of Galileo by revealing the relationship he had with his daughter. In additon, it gives an interesting look at S. Marie Celeste’s opinions, as a person with a great deal of religious devotion, of her father’s unintentionally antagonistic relationship with the church. She understood her father’s religious beliefs better than anyone else, and never once believed the Church authorities in Rome were correct to chastise her father as harshly as they eventually did. There is some irony in the fact that Galileo was for many years almost single-handedly supporting an entire convent, and yet earned the enmity of the Pope. (On the other hand, there is a bit of evidence in the book’s descriptions of Urban VIII that indicate he was perhaps, in the end, a wee bit paranoid.)

In any case, the result is an original biography that is anything but dry, and avoids framing Galileo’s life as a black and white, science vs. religion argument. It gives the reader a definite feeling for how important both aspects were to Galileo’s life, which, to me, only highlights how ridiculous the argument that the two must oppose each other really is.

Which is not to say that Galileo didn’t have opinions about the argument even back then. See below for some of his choice thoughts on the matter, as expressed in his writings over many years. I’ve highlighted my favorite bits.

On the religious arguments against astronomical advancement: 

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; and above all, in astronomy, of which so little notice is taken that the names of none of the planets are mentioned. Surely if the intention of the sacred scribes had been to teach the people astronomy, they would not have passed over the subject so completely.

-letter to Benedictine monk and former student Benedetto Castelli, 1613/14

Along the same lines, after some claimed that the moons of Jupiter were simply flaws in Galileo’s telescope, (and therefore the heavens remained unchanging and with no apparent orbiting going on anywhere except around the Earth):

Some years ago, …, I discovered in the heavens many things that had not been seen before our own age. The novelty of these things, as well as some consequences which followed from them in contradiction to the physical notions commonly held among academic philosophers, sturred up against me no small number of professors – as if I had placed these things in the sky with my own hands in order to upset Nature and overturn the sciences. They seemed to forget that the increase of known truths stimulates the investigation, establishment, and growth of the arts; not their diminution or destruction.

Showing a greater fondness for their own opinions than for truth, they… hurled various charges and published numerous writings filled with vain arguments, and they made the grave mistake of sprinkling these with passages taken from places in the Bible which they had failed to understand properly, and which were ill suited to their purposes.

-from Letter to Grand Duchess Cristina, originally written in 1615

On the need for more original thinking on the part of philosophers, (I just like this one as a whole, which is even better when you read it in the context of the book):  

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.

-from The Assayer, 1623

On the arrogance of man: 

Salviati: It seems to me that we take too much upon ourselves, Simplicio, when we will have it that merely taking care of us is the adequate work of Divine wisdom and power, and the limit beyond which it creates and disposes of nothing. I should not like to have us tie its hand so… When I am told that an immense space interposed between the planetary orbits and the starry sphere would be useless and vain, being idle and devoid of stars, and that any immensity going beyond our comprehension would be superfluous for holding the fixed stars, I say that it is brash for our feebleness to attempt to judge the reason for God’s actions, and to call everything in the universe vain and superfluous which does not serve us.

Sagredo: I believe that one of the greatest pieces of arrogance, or rather madness, that can be thought of is to say, ‘Since I do not know how Jupiter or Saturn is of service to me, they are superfluous, and even do not exist.’ Because, O deluded man, neither do I know how my arteries are of service to me, nor my cartilages, spleen, or gall; I should not even know that I had gall, or a spleen, or kidneys, if they had not been shown to me in many dissected corpses.

Besides, what does it mean to say that the space between Saturn and the fixed stars, which these men call too vast and useless, is empty of world bodies? That we do not see them perhaps? Then did the four satellites of Jupiter and the companions of Saturn come into the heavens when we began seeing them, and not before? Were there not innumerable other fixed stars before men began to see them? The nebulae were once only little white patches; have we with our telescopes made them become clusters of many bright and beautiful stars? Oh, the presumptuous, rash ignorance of mankind!

-from Dialogue on the Tides, speaking through the voices of the characters Salviati and Sagredo, finished in December 1629, completed printing in February 1632, banned summer 1633, permitted to be published again 1822

I figure it’s probably a sign of a good book when you find yourself having to search around for post-it notes to mark interesting pages you want to remember, in a book you were just reading for fun. So if you’re looking for something to read this summer, this is highly recommended, obviously.

-posted by Dana


One Response to Galileo: Scientific Crusader, Father

  1. […] why the planets are so cool Following up on my review of Galileo’s Daughter, I just finished reading another Dava Sobel book, The Planets. I really like Sobel’s writing, […]

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