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Medicean Stars

Book Review: Galileo's Daughter, by Dava Sobel
I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this book; and although I think the title is somewhat misleading, I enjoyed it nonetheless. In reality, this is a biography of Galileo, although Sobel ties it genuinely to the correspondence with his elder daughter in a convent outside Florence. The careful attention Galileo paid to Church doctrines must have made his life continually difficult. There are two turning points in the TV series The Ascent of Man where an entire episode is essentially focused on a single event in the history of science: one is the trial of Galileo, the other is Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species. I shall have to go back and rewatch the first of these. The impression I'm left with favours neither cock-up nor conspiracy on the part of the Inquisition, it seems there were elements of both (Galileo sought guidance on the Dialogue and obtained the required permission prior to its publication). Certainly Sobel leaves the reader in no doubt that the Catholic Church may have won the battle but that it had immediately lost the war. Galileo's imprisonment, first in the Tuscan embassy in Rome, and later in the custody of the Archbishop of Siena, deprived him of freedom but otherwise allowed him a generous lifestyle not granted to average convicts. Galileo's Dialogue had already reached Protestant parts of Europe, where Copernican ideas were more acceptable; and even within Italy, copies were secreted by their owners rather than handed in.

As is often the case, perhaps a contributing factor to my enjoyment of the book was last year's holiday in Florence, so some of the places were readily identifiable to me. It seemed appropriate to tag on immediately after this book, the Museo Galileo guidebook. By the standards of some museums and galleries in Florence, the two collections housed there (the Medici collections, dating from around Galileo's time, and the Lorraine collections, from the 18th and 19th centuries) are small, but nevertheless of high quality.
Tags: books, history, science
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