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A Revolution With No Rewind: Galileo’s Daughter and How the Patron Saint of Astronomy Reconciled Science and Spirituality

“Although science has soared beyond his quaint instruments, it is still caught in his struggle.”

A Revolution With No Rewind: Galileo’s Daughter and How the Patron Saint of Astronomy Reconciled Science and Spirituality

Like Blake and Beethoven, Galileo Galilei (February 15, 1564–January 8, 1642) lived a life animated by the tragic genius of outsiderdom. It was only by standing apart from his society that he was able to cast dogma and convention aside, oppose the core beliefs of his era, and peer into the very fabric of eternity from his lonesome-making lookout. If anyone in his world made him feel less alone and misunderstood, it was Virginia — the eldest of his three children, with whom he identified and connected most closely. In a letter to a colleague, he once extolled her as “a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to [him].” He saw in her a counterpart to his own intellect, sensibility, and restless seeker spirit. But one enormous incongruity marked their relationship: On her thirteenth birthday, Virginia entered a convent and remained there for the rest of her short life, devout yet devoted to her father, in constant correspondence with him as he set about upending the most fundamental tenets of religion with his revolutionary scientific discoveries.

In her 1999 masterwork Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love (public library) — a book so fantastic that it has been blatantly plagiarized — science writer extraordinaire Dava Sobel mines the 124 surviving letters between father and daughter for insight into the multitudes that Galileo contained and the complex relationship between science and spirituality that permeated his life, his work, and his love for Virginia.


The backdrop Sobel paints is a mosaic of contrasts:

Galileo’s daughter, born of his long illicit liaison with the beautiful Marina Gamba of Venice, entered the world in the summer heat of a new century, on August 13, 1600 — the same year the Dominican friar Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome for insisting, among his many heresies and blasphemies, that the Earth traveled around the Sun, instead of remaining motionless at the center of the universe. In a world that did not yet know its place, Galileo would engage this same cosmic conflict with the Church, treading a dangerous path between the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic and the heavens he revealed through his telescope.


Virginia adopted the name Maria Celeste when she became a nun, in a gesture that acknowledged her father’s fascination with the stars. Even after she professed a life of prayer and penance, she remained devoted to Galileo as though to a patron saint.


No detectable strife ever disturbed the affectionate relationship between Galileo and his daughter. Theirs is not a tale of abuse or rejection or intentional stifling of abilities. Rather, it is a love story, a tragedy, and a mystery.

The most palpable mystery, of course, is that of how Galileo was able to reconcile his scientific devotion to critical thinking with his daughter’s unquestioning faith, and how Virginia was able to reconcile her religious devotion with her father’s continual flirtation with heresy. Centuries later, Pope John Paul II would point to Galileo as the chief culprit in what he called the “tragic mutual incomprehension” between science and religion, but Sobel argues that Galileo and Virginia themselves made sense of this perplexity through a categorically different orientation of mind and spirit — rather than seeing it as a paradox, much less a contradiction, they were able to make loving room for a simultaneity of devotions, both between and within themselves.

To the modern mind, so bedeviled by binaries, such a simultaneity of conflicting convictions seems almost incomprehensible — which is why the quantum notion of complementarity can be so challenging to wrap one’s head around. And yet this disposition was the key to Galileo’s relationship with his daughter and, as Sobel suggests, to the very quality of character from which his cataclysmic contribution to science sprang. She writes:

[Their] letters, which have never been published in translation, recast Galileo’s story. They recolor the personality and conflict of a mythic figure, whose seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion. For although science has soared beyond his quaint instruments, it is still caught in his struggle, still burdened by an impression of Galileo as a renegade who scoffed at the Bible and drew fire from a Church blind to reason.


Yet the Galileo of Suor Maria Celeste’s letters recognized no such division during his lifetime. He remained a good Catholic who believed in the power of prayer and endeavored always to conform his duty as a scientist with the destiny of his soul. “Whatever the course of our lives,” Galileo wrote, “we should receive them as the highest gift from the hand of God, in which equally reposed the power to do nothing whatever for us. Indeed, we should accept misfortune not only in thanks, but in infinite gratitude to Providence, which by such means detaches us from an excessive love for Earthly things and elevates our minds to the celestial and divine.”

This proclamation stands as an irrefutable testament to the fact that even the most visionary genius is a product of her or his time and cannot fully escape the era’s blinders. But, far more important, it also attests to the enrichment and expansion of vision that comes from recognizing that each interpretation of reality is rife with subjectivity and actor-observer bias, from allowing multiple perspectives, from folding multitudes of experience and understanding unto a single self. Although he entrusted Providence with elevating Earthly minds, Galileo elevated his gaze to the cosmos by the power of his own will and continued to investigate its mysteries, every new discovery chipping away at dogma but not at his sense of divinity, for it furnished the divinest of all revelations and the supreme human zeal — that which Einstein called the “passion for comprehension.”

Galileo at age 42. Portrait by Domenico Robusti.
Galileo at age 42. Portrait by Domenico Robusti.

Although Galileo himself did not invent the telescope — neither the tool nor the term — he refined and reimagined its use. In doing so, he sparked a revolution at first quiet, then cacophonous. Sobel chronicles how this monumental shift in perception precipitated a monumental shift in understanding:

In the summer of 1609, Galileo was distracted from his motion experiments by rumors of a new Dutch curiosity called a spyglass, or eyeglass, that could make faraway objects appear closer than they were. Though few Italians had seen one firsthand, spectacle makers in Paris were already selling them in quantity.

Galileo immediately grasped the military advantage of the new spyglass, although the instrument itself, fashioned from stock spectacle lenses, was little more than a toy in its first incarnation. Seeking to improve the spyglass by augmenting its power, Galileo calculated the ideal shape and placement of glass, ground and polished the crucial lenses himself, and traveled to nearby Venice to show the doge, along with the entire Venetian senate, what his contrivance could do. The response, he reported, was “the infinite amazement of all.” Even the oldest senators eagerly scaled the highest bell towers of the city, repeatedly, for the unique pleasure of discerning ships on the horizon — through the spyglass — a good two to three hours before they became visible to the keenest-sighted young lookouts.

In exchange for the gift of his telescope (as a colleague in Rome later renamed the instrument), the Venetian senate renewed Galileo’s contract at the University of Padua for life, and raised his salary to one thousand florins per year — more than five times his starting pay.

Galileo proceeded to improve his lenses, doubling the magnifying power of his telescopes, and was soon able to produce his now-iconic detailed drawings of the Moon’s phases — a radical refutation of Aristotle’s longstanding claim that the celestial bodies were perfectly still and perfectly smooth fixtures in the Heavens. Instead, Galileo revealed them to be imperfect pieces of rock in perpetual motion.

Galileo’s Moon drawings, included in 100 Diagrams That Changed the World

The more intently and irreverently he peered into the cosmos, the more he saw, and soon he made his most groundbreaking discovery of all — Jupiter’s moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, which remained the only known Jovian moons, out of 67 known today, up until the dawn of modern popular astronomy. In an exhilarated letter from January of 1610, Galileo called them “four planets never seen from the beginning of the world right up to our day.” Once again, he fused faith with science:

I render infinite thanks to God for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries.

Jupiter's Galilean moons, in ascending order of distance from Earth: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto. (Composite image courtesy of NASA/JPL/DLR)
Contemporary astrophotography of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, in ascending order of distance from Earth: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto. (Composite image courtesy of NASA/JPL/DLR)

By March, he had published his Starry Messenger — perhaps the single most paradigm-shifting text in the history of our civilization, which created an instant sensation, sold out within a week of rolling off the press, and sparked a revolution with no rewind. For the perfect illustration of just how radical a shift this was, Sobel cites the letter accompanying the copy of Starry Messenger which Sir Henry Wotton, the British ambassador to Venice, sent to King James I:

I send herewith unto His Majesty the strangest piece of news (as I may justly call it) that he hath ever yet received from any part of the world; which is the annexed book (come abroad this very day) of the Mathematical Professor at Padua, who by the help of an optical instrument (which both enlargeth and approximateth the object) invented first in Flanders, and bettered by himself, hath discovered four new planets rolling about the sphere of Jupiter, besides many other unknown fixed stars; likewise, the true cause of the Via Lactea [Milky Way], so long searched; and lastly, that the moon is not spherical, but endued with many prominences, and, which is of all the strangest, illuminated with the solar light by reflection from the body of the earth, as he seemeth to say. So as upon the whole subject he hath first overthrown all former astronomy — for we must have a new sphere to save the appearances — and next all astrology. For the virtue of these new planets must needs vary the judicial part, and why may there not yet be more? These things I have been bold thus to discourse unto your Lordship, whereof here all corners are full. And the author runneth a fortune to be either exceeding famous or exceeding ridiculous. By the next ship your Lordship shall receive from me one of the above instruments, as it is bettered by this man.

Galileo continued to better his instrument. Shortly after Virginia entered the convent and became Suor Maria Celeste, he began his slow-motion collision with the Catholic Church, at the climax of which he wrote his famous letter about science, religion, and human nature to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany. Sobel writes of the period after the Inquisition pressed its knife to the bone of Galileo’s science:

For seven cautious years he turned his efforts to less perilous pursuits, such as harnessing his Jovian satellites in the service of navigation, to help sailors discover their longitude at sea. He studied poetry and wrote literary criticism. Modifying his telescope, he developed a compound microscope. “I have observed many tiny animals with great admiration,” he reported, “among which the flea is quite horrible, the gnat and the moth very beautiful; and with great satisfaction I have seen how flies and other little animals can walk attached to mirrors, upside down.”

Galileo at his microscope from I, Galileo by Bonnie Christensen
Galileo at his microscope from I, Galileo by Bonnie Christensen

If Galileo was such a visionary seer, it was because his supreme tool was neither the microscope nor the telescope but curiosity itself — an indiscriminate curiosity that rendered him equally interested in the microscopic and the monumental. Perhaps peering into the cell and witnessing its miraculous marvels, invisible to the naked eye, was what granted him the confidence and faith that the cosmos might hide similar revelations, accessible to the curious, tireless, and well-equipped eye; what prompted him to quip defiantly: “Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known?”

But the most marvelous thing, the most humbling thing, is that even as this visionary seer peered into the fabric of reality, he only saw a fraction of what we know to exist today. As Galileo gazed through his primitive telescope from his vantage point at the dawn of observational astronomy, he couldn’t see — and likely couldn’t even imagine the existence of — celestial structures as basic as galaxies, to say nothing of cosmic marvels like pulsars and dark matter, which weren’t even theorized, much less detected, until centuries after Galileo became stardust. Today, we are warmed by the rays of a new dawn of gravitational astronomy and as we begin listening to the universe, we are well advised to expect being whispered or bellowed secrets as elemental yet unimaginable to us today as galaxies were to Galileo.

Complement the thoroughly terrific Galileo’s Daughter with the patron saint of astronomy on critical thinking, how books give us superhuman powers, the story of how he invented timekeeping and changed modern life, and this charming children’s book about his life and legacy, then revisit Alan Lightman on finding secular spirituality in science.

Published August 9, 2016




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