Since tradition proscribed marriage for university faculty, Galileo's lifelong union with Marina Gamba was not officially sanctioned. Marina bore Galileo two daughters and a son. His fatherly affection was as great as if they had been his legitimate offspring.

Knowing that his daughters, born out of wedlock, would therefore never be able to marry anyone but stable hands or peasants, Galileo got them accepted at ages 12 and 13 into a Franciscan community of Poor Clares near Florence. When his elder daughter, Virginia, made her final vows as a nun, she took the name Sister Celeste—a reference to her father's devotion to studying the heavens. The younger Livia took the name Sister Arcangela.

As the years went by, Sister Celeste assumed more and more of the responsibility for running the convent, which was desperately poor. Ironically, the plague that wracked Europe during these years never affected the convent, probably because rats found nothing to eat there.

One of the convent's few literate nuns, Sister Celeste must have been educated at home in her early years, quite possibly by her father. Over 100 of her letters to Galileo survive, evidence of how highly he valued her correspondence.

Through the years, she baked treats and did needlework for her father. And Galileo sent fresh fruits from his orchard and, before his house arrest, visited his daughters at the convent, which he could see from his villa above Florence.

Sister Celeste's help was not limited to cooking and sewing, however. She served as final copyist for her father's manuscripts. Before he left Florence for his disastrous last trip to Rome, he entrusted his financial affairs to his daughter, who had obviously inherited his mathematical aptitude. She also used ...

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