Galileo’s Daughter

Galileo’s Daughter, by Dava Sobel

Dad, on whom may there be peace, was in reality a man of physics. He majored in Nuclear Physics but decided that a job in hand was far better than future scope for research and opted to join a bank. There he did very well and to me it was always a surprise that someone who was so comfortable in balance sheets, profit and loss statements, Usance, arbitrage and whatnot, was once a person who had delighted in pure research. He would brush it off by saying that an intelligent person can do well in whatever field he or she chooses to work in.

I on the other hand was a man of arts. To me physics did not hold any fascination, though chemistry did. Perhaps I took after mom in that respect, for she was a chemistry graduate. But I always marvelled at the way dad spoke with such reverence about Aryabhatta, Galileo, Copernicus, Newton and Einstein. He would often remark that it was a tragedy that India, despite having had such a great start in scientific enquiry during ancient times should have opted to waste all its time and energy in matters of caste and superstition from the Middle Ages. He believed that we were a few centuries behind others and the sooner we caught up the better.

Galileo to dad was the ultimate hero. He would often remark about how this great scientist was persecuted by the church for his heliocentric theory because according to Christian dogma, the earth was the centre of the universe. I did not share this adulation. To me, physics would have been far simpler had Galileo not come in and interfered with the accepted theory. Imagine, not having to learn about inclined planes, gravity, relativity and above all relative velocity. Those puzzles about two trains leaving stations at the opposite ends of a track always got my goat. As did the ones about bullets leaving a gun. Hardly the stuff to teach children in my opinion. It is entirely because of lessons like that that terrorism has reached such menacing proportions.

Anyway, to cut that ramble short, let me get to the point of my article. A couple of months ago, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, whose reading is as vast as his music, gave me this book titled Galileo’s Daughter and strongly recommended that I read it. I took my time to do so. The memories of inclined planes had soured my love for Galileo. But once I took up the book I could not put it down. I could imagine dad smiling down from some other plane (hopefully not inclined).

Author Dava Sobel has written a gripping account of Galileo’s life, with his scientific findings and their impact interwoven with a long-lasting correspondence between him and his elder daughter Maria Celeste. Her letters to him have survived intact but sadly, those from father to daughter have not and can only be surmised about. Maria Celesete and her sister Arcangela were both dedicated as nuns in the convent of San Mateo. They, and their brother Vincenzio were all born outside of wedlock, a common occurrence in those times.

Galileo shines forth in the book as a brilliant mind, forced to face much danger owing to his daring to look further than most others. But it is Maria Celeste that you fall in love with. Her letters show that she had a full understanding of what her father was doing. She copies his notes, remote manages his house when he is facing trial and imprisonment in Rome, writes of commonplace happenings at the convent (including Arcangela’s fondness for the bottle), and of the changes of seasons. She is short, is the ideal child. At the same time, she is a woman of science, too, asking Galileo for his latest writings, reading them all up and passing them on to the other nuns in the convent. In fact, the name Celeste that she takes on while becoming a nun, was perhaps a doffing of her hat to her father’s researches pertaining to the sky. Through her letters, Italy comes alive, complete with descriptions of processions, outbreaks of plague, Papal machinations and food – the last named is a continuing thread – Galileo loved his wine and besides there are descriptions of wine-making, bread, geese, quail and cheese. You feel hungry all the time when you read Maria Celeste, as she too probably did, for life in the convent was extremely hard. Not that she complained. I am not so sure about Arcangela.

Thus when Maria passed away in 1634, Galileo was heartbroken. He was fated to live much longer, dying only in 1642. But life was not the same. The book ends with the efforts taken by his admirers to build a suitable monument for him, in the teeth of opposition from the clergy. They succeed two centuries later and when it is time to relocate Galileo’s body to its final resting place, those in charge of it are faced with a stunning discovery – just like Bhootnath Babu does in the climax of Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam. I leave you to read and find that out yourself.

I wish they had taught physics in school with such books as Dava Sobel’s as text. And not stupid questions relating to bullets leaving pistols, inclined planes and stones falling into water.

The book, on a father and daughter, is dedicated to Galileo and her own father Samuel Hillel Sobel , by Dava. I therefore dedicate this review to mine.

Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel, Bloomsbury,1999. PP 420.

This article is part of an occasional series I do on Sunday, relating to books I have read and delighted in. The earlier write-ups can be read here