Faith and Science: Galileo’s Daughter, Book Review

“. . . though Scripture cannot err, its expounders and interpreters are liable to err in many ways”—Galileo Galilei, 1613

Science and Christian faith: in conflict or concord?  Galileo is sometimes presented as an example of their essential conflict; after all, he was censured by the church for teaching that the earth goes around the sun.  But Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love shows Galileo’s deep faith as a committed Catholic. Galileo believed that there was no conflict or contradiction between science and faith, and that God shows Himself in His works as well as in His Word. This same view was held many years later by most Christians in Austen’s England. An intriguing story, I recommend this book for anyone interested in the connections and conflicts between faith and science.

I borrowed this book from my library expecting historical fiction, and discovered it was history, but presented in a compelling, lively way. What else would you expect from Dava Lobel, the author of Longitude, who made even the discovery of ways to measure longitude a fascinating story?

Galileo's Daughter


Galileo’s Daughter, the Nun

Galileo’s Daughter intertwines Galileo’s life story with letters written by his daughter, published for the first time in English.  Galileo had a liaison for some years with a woman named Marina Gamba in Venice.  He never married her, as she was from a lower social class, and they seem to have parted amicably after some years when he moved to another city and she married someone else.

Galileo and Marina had three children together: a son named Vincenzio who was later legitimized, and two daughters who became nuns. Apparently their father considered them unmarriageable because they were illegitimate, so he placed them in a convent. The younger girl, Livia (renamed Suor, or Sister, Arcangela as a nun), was moody, taciturn, and often ill. Perhaps she resented being placed in a convent and living a life of poverty and seclusion with very little freedom, through no choice of her own.  But the older daughter, Virginia (renamed Suor Maria Celeste), stayed in close contact with her father, who she venerated. She even took care of his laundry and mending and made special sweets and medical remedies for him.

The book traces Galileo’s life, and his discoveries and publications, more than his daughter’s life, though her letters accompany his journey. The letters show how intertwined their lives were, despite her seclusion at the San Matteo convent. Sobel writes, “all the while that Galileo was inventing modern physics, teaching mathematics to princes, discovering new phenomena among the planets, publishing science books for the general public, and defending his bold theories against establishment enemies, he was also buying thread for Suor Luisa, choosing organ music for Mother Achillea, shipping gifts of food, and supplying his homegrown citrus fruits, wine, and rosemary leaves for the kitchen and apothecary at San Matteo” (chapter 10).

Galileo and Astronomy

Galileo made major improvements to the telescope.  Through his improved telescope, he discovered moons orbiting around Jupiter; evidence that not everything in the heavens revolved around the earth. He was the first to observe Saturn’s rings, though he thought they were two unmoving moons on either side of Saturn.

The Greek philosopher Ptolemy had taught that the sun moved around the earth, and the Catholic church accepted this idea. Copernicus theorized, more than fifty years before Galileo, that the earth moved around the sun, but he didn’t have enough evidence. Galileo’s observations and arguments led strongly to the conclusion that Copernicus had been right.  While many Christians elsewhere in Europe were willing to accept this conclusion, the Catholic Church in Italy was not.

Galileo and the Catholic Church

Galileo was a committed and devout Catholic.  He did his best to submit to the church’s statements and rulings.  But he did not see any contradiction between the Bible and scientific discoveries. Catholic leaders claimed that biblical statements such as “the sun stood still,” in the book of Joshua, indicated that the sun moved around the earth. But as Galileo pointed out, much of the Bible is written in figurative language; we’re not intended to understand, for example, that God has hands and feet or human emotions such as regret. He also stated that it wasn’t the purpose of the Bible to teach science, especially astronomy which is hardly mentioned. God gave man eyes and brains to figure out such things.  He agreed with a Catholic cardinal who stated that “the Bible was a book about how one goes to Heaven—not how Heaven goes.” Galileo believed that both Scripture and nature came from the same God; the Bible dictated by God’s Spirit, and nature carrying out God’s commands. Therefore they could not possibly be in contradiction.


Galileo's Dialogues
Galileo presented some of his findings and beliefs in the form of Dialogues, where different characters took different points of view.  This distanced him personally from the arguments, and also made his writings more interesting and compelling.

After an early reprimand by the church, Galileo was very careful not to “teach” that the earth went around the sun. He simply presented it as one possible explanation for the astronomical facts he was observing. His work had to be accepted by Catholic censors and the Inquisition before publication. Galileo was careful in presenting his work as further theories, and when he was called in for questioning by a tribunal of cardinals, stated that he believed what the church taught. However, his writing supported Copernicus so strongly that he was convicted of “heresy, namely of having held and believed the doctrine which is false and contrary to the Sacred and Divine Scriptures, that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world” (chapter 25). Some of the cardinals on the tribunal disagreed with Galileo’s condemnation, along with many other leading churchmen. His sentence was relatively light; he had to regularly recite penitential Psalms (Bible passages expressing repentance), and his movements and visitors were restricted, though he could still visit his daughters in the nearby convent.

A wide range of Christians of his time, including many Catholics, agreed with Galileo and supported and taught the Copernican view that the earth revolves around the sun. The Catholic Church hierarchy was gradually won over.  In 1835, almost two hundred years after Galileo’s death (and 18 years after Jane Austen’s death), Galileo’s Dialogues were removed from the Index of Prohibited Books. In 1992, Pope John Paul II publicly endorsed Galileo’s philosophy.

What does a book about Galileo (1564-1642), who died over a hundred years before Austen was born, have to do with Jane Austen?  In Austen’s time, the Anglican Church widely accepted Galileo’s beliefs, particularly his beliefs that science would not contradict the Bible, and that God could be understood both through His Word and through His works.  William Paley, whose books would have been studied by Austen’s characters at Oxford and Cambridge, strongly believed this and wrote about science through the lens of faith. William Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus when Austen was 5 years old, made many improvements to Galileo’s telescope design, which had already revolutionized astronomy. His discoveries about the size of the universe led some of his contemporaries to question the Bible. Galileo himself had no such difficulties; his expanded view of the universe only led him to glorify the God who made it! For Galileo, “to imagine an infinite universe was merely to grant almighty God His proper due” (chapter 15).

I highly recommend this book to those interested in the connections and conflicts between faith and science. Kepler’s Witch, reviewed last week, is also recommended, showing the struggles faced by Galileo’s Protestant contemporary Johannes Kepler.

Galileo believed that all truth is God’s truth, both the truths of God’s Word and the truths of God’s world.  He attempted to harmonize the two, while still staying in submission to authorities of his faith.  Where might we need to stand up for truth today, while still treating those in authority, and others who differ from us, with humility and respect?


Sobel, Dava. Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. London: Bloomsbury, 1999, 2009. Kindle.

The Galileo Affair” gives a good summary of the issues surrounding Galileo’s trial.

Frontispiece for Galileo’s Dialogues, 1632.


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