The world was a much different place a scant handful of centuries ago. Well, maybe not the physical world. It’s the same shape, and all the continents and oceans and islands are pretty much where they were back then, but people and how they see the world have changed significantly. Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter demonstrates this using letters to the great astronomer from his loving daughter Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun. Since Galileo and her mother never wed, she was judged unmarriageable, so her father, in a sincere act of paternal care, arranged for her and her younger sister to be sent to a convent when Celeste (then Virginia) was 13. Neither daughter ever ventured outside its walls again. In our culture, which views individual freedom and personal choice as inherent rights, this might seem harsh treatment, but Maria Celeste doesn’t consider herself imprisoned or unfortunate in any way. Her father, conversely, when he is sentenced to what amounts to house arrest by the Inquisition for holding the belief that the Earth moves around the Sun, does feel unjustly put upon, even though he is no more confined at the end of his life than his daughters have been most of theirs. How they see their situations is determined by how they see the world, which is quite different from how most people in Western society now see it. Galileo is one of the reasons why.
Sadly, only half of the long correspondence between father and daughter has been preserved. Galileo saved his daughter’s letters. Celeste saved his to her as well, but they were apparently destroyed by an overzealous of fearful mother abbess after Celeste’s untimely death (age 34) from dysentery. But from Celeste’s letters and other accounts of the time, we can learn a lot about the life and times of Galileo. I think most of us today would see his world as harsh, oppressive, a place where everything you do, even your thoughts, are subject to judgement and punishment by established authorities. I am often struck by how subservient, how obsequious, the tone of letters are from this time. Today, sucking up to the boss is viewed as demeaning. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was apparently not only expected but necessary. It is only by viewing Galileo’s accomplishments in this context that we can fully appreciate his bravery and his contribution to shaping our world today. It’s a better place because of him.