Galileo’s Daughter

· science ·

I watched a very good documentary yesterday, based on the book "Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel. It was a very interesting glimpse at Galileo's character (the word 'arrogant' springs to mind), and the rather touching relationship he shared with his illegitimate daughter, Maria Celeste who had been cloistered in a convent since the age of 13. It's slightly frustrating, because while her letters to Galileo have been preserved, his to her haven't survived — probably because the convent was a bit wary of keeping letters from a convicted heretic. Maria's letters reveal a woman with a very lively mind, who was in as much of a prison as her father — perhaps a worse one, as the physical conditions were so harsh in the convent. She suffered a lot of ill health and died terribly young in her mid-thirties.

I've always been impressed by Galileo's dogged insistence on an empirical approach. When all of the world thought that it was plain common sense that Copernicus' ideas were lunacy ("Of course the Earth isn't moving — we'd all fall off it!"), he insisted that there was evidence to the contrary. No matter how obvious something seems, if you do the proper experiment and find that another explanation fits the evidence better, you have to accept that empirical evidence.

Galileo's story does contain a salutary warning to anyone trying to go against the religious hegemony of the day; if your pal the Pope tells you that it's OK to publish something heretical, so long as you make sure that it is phrased hypothetically, do not name the mouthpiece of the Church's view 'Simplicio' (the Simpleton) in your rhetorical dialogue. And you definitely shouldn't put the words spoken by your former pal the Pope (in a private chat with you), into the mouth of said character, and make them sound ridiculous. That's just asking for trouble...