“An Evening With Galileo and His Daughter”

The Planetary Society celebrates the discoveries of the man and the spacecraft

by Michelle Evans, November 2003


Galileo, the man, spoke to us across the immensity of time. His discoveries about our place in the universe were so profound and world-shattering that it nearly cost him his life, and did cost him his freedom. He showed us how the entire cosmos did not revolve around a fixed and immovable Earth. We were no longer unique and special, but part of a larger tapestry of space and time.


Galileo, the spacecraft, spoke to us across the immensity of distance. Its discoveries changed our view of the Jovian system, hundreds of millions of miles from Earth, showing us that other places in our own solar backyard may be abodes for life. For that discovery, our spacecraft Galileo sacrificed its life. The possibilities opened by this Galileo have once again called our uniqueness into question.


To celebrate the man and the spacecraft, and the indelible mark they both left upon us, The Planetary Society presented a very special evening on September 22 at the Pasadena Playhouse. Their goal was to allow the public to share in honoring the people who made the Galileo mission to Jupiter possible. At the same time, they wanted to show us the genius of the man who started us on this road to exploration nearly 400 years ago, Galileo Galilei.

The second goal of the Society’s program was unique in that it was presented not only through the writings of Galileo himself, but through the eyes of his extraordinary eldest daughter, Suor (Sister) Maria Celeste. When former New York Times science reporter Dava Sobel wrote “Galileo’s Daughter” in 1999, she opened a chapter of history that many of us had never known existed. Because he was unmarried, the best chance for a reasonable life for Galileo’s daughters could only be had through their entry into a convent. Suor Maria Celeste, had a passion for writing letters to her famous father and these letters survive to this day. Through them we have a highly personal view of what life was like in the early 1600s.


Stage and screen actress Linda Purl was asked to bring life to the writings of Suor Maria Celeste at the Pasadena Playhouse production. John Rhys-Davies (the Indiana Jones trilogy and Lord of the Rings trilogy) was perfectly cast as the interminable Galileo. The play was directed by Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager). Standing at opposite sides of the stage Maria Celeste would send her letters to her father. Galileo would respond with his ponderings on the universe.


Life was hard for Suor Maria Celeste. She lived in a convent that shunned almost all worldly possessions. What little they had was required to be used to the utmost and recycled. She often sent Galileo food grown in the convent and her letters would chastise him when he failed to return a cloth or basket that she would desperately need. However, the correspondence with her father also showed her love of the man and his quest to bring order to the universe by opening to Earthly eyes what had been hidden for centuries.


One of the first major discoveries that Galileo made through his telescope was that the planet Jupiter had four companions. At first he thought them to be fixed stars, but continued observation showed them to be attached in some manner to Jupiter itself. He rightly assigned them as moons of Jupiter in the same way that our Moon orbits the Earth. This keen and correct observation started the long slide that would end with his confrontation at the Inquisition. His book “Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World” was viewed as heretical and was eventually banned by the Church for centuries, causing Galileo himself to be placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. It was only a decade ago that Galileo was finally exonerated by Pope John Paul II.


As the following para-graphs from Galileo’s writings (and read by John Rhys-Davies) show, not only was he an astute thinker, but he had a penchant for upsetting the proverbial apple cart of Church dogma.


“I am told that the immense space interposed between the planetary orbits of the starry sphere would be useless and that any immensity going beyond our comprehension would be superfluous for holding the fixed stars. I say this is brash in our feebleness to attempt to judge the reason for God’s actions and to call everything in the universe vain and superfluous which does not serve us, or rather which we do not know to serve us.


“I believe that one of the biggest pieces of arrogance of man is to say, ‘Since I do not know how Jupiter or Saturn is of service to me, they are superfluous.’ Because truly, neither do I know how my arteries are of service to me, or cartilage or spleen or gall. I should not even know that I had a gall or a spleen or kidneys, if they had not been shown to me in many dissected corpses.


“Besides, what does it mean to say that the space between Saturn and the fixed stars, which these men call too vast and useless, is empty of world bodies? Did the four satellites of Jupiter and the companion of Saturn only come into the heavens only when we began seeing them and not before? Were there not innumerable fixed stars before man began to see them? And the nebulae that were once only little white patches. Have we caused them to become many clusters of bright and beautiful stars? Ah, the presumptuous, brash, ignorance of mankind!”


The audience showed great enthusiasm when the readings drew to a close. I talked with John Rhys-Davies afterward about how wonderful his performance was. He told me that he thought he had been very uneven. I told him how I doubted anyone in the audience had noticed. Hearing the words of Galileo and his daughter come to life was an exceptional evening that I don’t believe anyone would soon forget.


Prior to the start of the performance, Louis D. Friedman, Executive Director of the Planetary Society, presented three members of the Galileo mission with special honors John Casani was the very first Galileo Project Manager and Claudia Alexander was the last. Torrence Johnson was the Project Scientist.


When the three came on stage to receive their award, John Casani summed up his feelings. “Many people have characterized the spacecraft over the last several months or years of its operations as ‘The Little Spacecraft that Could,’ or ‘That Little Machine that Kept Chugging Along,” but I don’t like to think of it that way. To me, the spacecraft is just a couple hundred kilograms of aluminum and silica. What you see in the way of accomplishments is the result of the commitment, dedication, and great talents of the scientists and engineers who worked so hard to develop the design, and fabricate and test it, deliver it to the launch pad, then ultimately fly it. So on behalf of all of those who worked at the first end of the mission, I want to acknowledge to all of you our gratitude and appreciation for the honor you have shown us tonight.”


Torrence Johnson explained that, “Galileo has been about teamwork from the very beginning; the flight team, the science community, the engineers, and the developers in every level of the system. A very important component of that has been public support, which has been tremendous for this mission from the very beginning, and has really been exemplified by the activities of The Planetary Society. So in accepting this award, we are thanking you out there.”


Both our Galileos are gone now, one to the dust of history and the other to the fiery Jovian atmosphere. The discoveries and insights of both will echo down through time, thrown open to us by their probing minds, as we continue to expand our presence in the universe.


John Rhys-Davies ("Galileo"), Linda Purl ("Suor Maria Celeste"), and Robert Picardo (director) at the party following the play.

Author Dava Sobel being interviewed.

"Galileo's Daughter" by Dava Sobel served as the basis for the stage play.

John Rhys-Davies and Linda Purl on stage following their performance.