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From Florence to Pluto with Dava Sobel

Newsweek calls The Planets "a guided tour so imaginative that we forget we're being educated while we're being entertained." The Telegraph marvels, "Sobel's enthusiasm for her subject is absolute, and she succeeds in transmitting it to the reader." Closer to home, the Oregonian assures fans of the author's earlier work, "With The Planets, [Sobel] continues her reign as one of the most engaging and lyrical science writers around."Dava Sobel

Raise your hand if you're surprised. Didn't think so.

Ten years ago, when Dava Sobel published Longitude, she jiggered the course of narrative nonfiction in America. Science geeks and neophytes alike devoured the story of John Harrison's assault on one of the greatest scientific problems of modern times, and a fleet of sharply focused science texts for lay readers (generally sporting one-word titles) followed in the wake. Four years later, Sobel returned with Galileo's Daughter, an equally engrossing but altogether different kind of history. In documenting the relationship of Galileo Galilei and his daughter, she corrected long-maintained misconceptions about the great scientist and in the process delivered a magisterial portrait of the age.

Now, in The Planets, Sobel serves up something of a love letter to the solar system, a lyrical portrait of the human race, century after century, gazing into nighttime skies. "It's not just for nerds like me," she promises. "There's a lot that's very satisfying to know."

Dave: What was the most interesting revelation for you in the process of researching and writing The Planets?

Dava Sobel: The most interesting factual revelation for me was realizing just how massive the sun is in relation to the rest of the solar system. I knew it accounted for most of the solar system's mass, but I didn't think it was 99.9 percent. That is a stunning statistic.

Dave: In a chapter about Mars, you write from the perspective of a meteorite in Antarctica. In another chapter, you write as the sister of the man who discovered Uranus. What drove the book's structure?

Sobel: It was the realization that there is no story. Also, there is no shortage of books about planets, but there aren't books, really, for an intelligent, well-educated adult who knows nothing about the subject. That was the reader I had in mind.

It took me a year to figure out what to do with the material. I'm a bona fide space cadet: I go to launches, I've been to Space Camp. But that's me. How do you talk to the person who knows nothing? I know a lot of people like that. So I looked for non-scientific connections, and there were more than I'd thought: mythology, science fiction, astrology... That's what gave me the idea. There were enough themes to match with the planets, themselves.

At first I considered linking each chapter to a particular person, either a character in history or a modern-day astronomer, but that seemed too pat and boring. Every chapter was going to be the same. I didn't like it, and I almost gave up. I felt that the material wasn't going to sustain a reader's interest.

Dave: It was going to read more like an encyclopedia.

Sobel: Exactly. And there was no point in doing that.

But once I had this idea, it struck me that this would be a lot more work than I'd imagined. The book was supposed to come out three years ago. And the editors didn't see it, so they didn't understand why it was taking so long. Excuse me, I'm going to spend the next three months reading science fiction. It was that kind of thing—because I'd never read it before, but I knew the Mars chapter had to be about science fiction. And I wanted the tone of the chapter to sound like science fiction. If you read science fiction, you're definitely at home in that chapter, but if you haven't read it, that's okay, too.

When I started, I didn't know how any of these chapters were going to turn out. I'd be reading books about Mars, papers about Mars, web site information, and then every other day I'd be reading The War of the Worlds or Dune or The Martian Chronicles. I kept notebooks, and the notebooks are all interwoven like that. At some point, an idea would arise—What if the Mars rock could talk?—and then I was rolling. But it took a few weeks for every one of them, thinking, I'll never pull this off. The Caroline Herschel chapter was maybe the craziest of all, but I wound up really liking it.

Dave: There's no story, as you say, but a sense evolves that a story is being told by the structure. It's a book about the interaction of humans and planets, about the development of our perception and understanding, which is still very much ongoing. In that respect, the structure speaks to the theme: The planets mean many different things to many different people.

Sobel: Right. It's not just for nerds like me. There's a lot that's very satisfying to know.

Dave: One reviewer took you to task for treating astrology seriously. I thought, Here's a perfect case of a reviewer grading the book he wanted to read instead of the one you wrote.

Sobel: It happens all the time. Was that the one in the Washington Post Book World?

Dave: No. There must be more than one. I think it was the Independent.

Sobel: Oh, in Britain they're very rough. I think that was Patrick Moore's review. And I thought, Why did they give it to an astronomer? Of course an astronomer was going to have that reaction.

I knew, working on it, that the astrology chapter was a loaded gun. I had this book vetted by numerous astronomers—three people read the whole thing and others read a chapter on the subject of their expertise—and everybody who read the astrology chapter would write in the margins, "But how does it work, really?" That just tickled me so. Of course, you can't say.

For a while, I worried: If Carl Sagan were alive, what would he say to me for doing this? But I hope he would understand that if you simply recite the science writer's code of That's a lot of hooey; you should study astronomy, nobody's going to pay attention. You have to meet them on the sidewalk, like Dobson does, and say, "Here, look at this." Some people, like the Washington Post Book World, actually wound up thinking that I really believe astrology. Okay. I'll take that.

Dave: But to ignore astrology would be to deny that for a great mass of people this is what the planets represent.

Sobel: Exactly. And it's fine. I'm not out to change the world. I was just thinking, If you're interested in the planets this way, you might also like to know that Galileo was an astrologer. It's even more interesting than you thought.

Dave: Help me understand something: Neptune is how many billion miles away?

Sobel: More than two billion.

Dave: And Voyager 2 got there in thirteen years. How?

Sobel: It got boosted along by traveling near the other giant planets, and the planets were aligned in such a way that it could happen. There was a limited opportunity for what the astronomers were calling "the grand tour"; the window was just a few years that they could make all this happen. They didn't get to Pluto, but there is now a spacecraft approved and ready at Cape Canaveral. It's going to be launched in January. So this is very exciting.

Dave: In each of your books, we see how a discovery can inform any number of other scientists, even if the work isn't directly related. In Longitude, for example, some people are trying to solve the longitude problem by developing reliable clocks while others are mapping the stars...

Sobel: And they weren't working together, though some people were doing both. Galileo didn't succeed, but he was coming at that problem from both angles, which I find fascinating.

Dave: They weren't all professionals, either.

Sobel: If people had a comfortable enough living, they could pursue their own research. Take someone like William Herschel, who had no training. He was a musician before he decided he was interested in math and astronomy. He became one of the best in his field. Was he a raging genius or were the times different? It's hard to say. A little of both, maybe.

Dave: John Harrison's experience reminded me of William Smith in Simon Winchester's book, The Map that Changed the World. Those Royal Societies could be tough on outsiders.

Sobel: Very tough. And people have told me that in England this would happen again today. That has not changed. It's very class conscious.

Dave: It's human nature, or maybe just basic animal instinct, to protect your turf. But what set me off thinking of how these research developments overlap was a bit in The Planets: You write, "In 1599 Kepler derived a C major chord by equating the relative velocities of the planets with the intervals playable on a stringed instrument."

Sobel: Kepler is really profound. And he was so mystical in his thinking. He had some of the craziest ideas, but beautifully brilliant.

Dave: Why did you become a science writer instead of a scientist?

Sobel: I don't have the temperament to be a scientist. I tried for a while in college. I was a biochemistry major for a time.

I always liked to write, but I'm fifty-eight; when I was in school, nobody talked about science writing as a profession. If I had known about it, I would have been set from the get-go. Instead, I had to go through five majors and a lot of angst. Even at the end of school, I still had no idea what to do. IBM recruited on campus, and I became a technical writer for a while, but that corporate world was not for me. I went back to school—I figured I'd go to graduate school for a while. There, I bumped into a classmate who was working at the local newspaper. She said, "There's another opening..." So that's how it started.

Because I was hired on the Women's pages, they let me do whatever I liked. It was the year of the first Earth Day, so I got really interested in what people were doing about conservation and pollution. I was a science writer, but I didn't know that's what you called it. Then I moved to Ithaca, and Cornell had a position in its news bureau for someone to report on the various research activities at the university. That was the job for me. I was so happy.

Dave: What's the most interesting place you've ever gone for a story?

Sobel: I've seen the launch of a Space Shuttle. I went to see the launch of the Mars rovers, but there were two scrubs the night I was there and I started to think I had bad karma; this thing was never going to get off the ground within its launch window if I didn't leave Florida, so I did.

I got to be at the jet propulsion lab when they were building the Cassini spacecraft. I stood in a little alcove, an observation balcony, over this enormous, clean-room that is completely sealed with just three people in it, slowly hammering this thing together. That was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen.

I was a subject of an experiment about Circadian rhythm, and I reported on that. That was really interesting—not the most pleasant thing I've ever done, but fascinating. I got to see the Biosphere. Remember that? That was a weird place, but it was very pretty.

I've also seen a few total eclipses on assignment.

Dave: How much time did you spend in Italy for Galileo's Daughter?

Sobel: I went four or five times but not for more than two weeks at a time.

Dave: Do Italian scientists drink red wine at lunch?

Sobel: Yes. Or white, sometimes.

Dave: Life's better over there.

Sobel: The pace is better. It's quite lovely. If I'd had to translate the daughter's letters in Italy, that would have really been difficult, but they were printed in Italian and I could work from something that was printed, as opposed to hand-written. Of course, it was wonderful to see the real things.

Dave: When did you learn to speak Italian?

Sobel: I studied it in college—again, just because I was so lost. My roommate said, "You should study Italian. We could go to class together." That was my college career—inane. But I loved the language and kept up with it, so I had that to fall back on.

I hadn't really been speaking it all along, so I went back to school. When you're young and you learn something in depth, it's preserved; later, if you scratch on it, it wakes up. That was my happy discovery, working on that book. I didn't want to give over the translation to somebody else. It was too much the center of the story.

Dave: Galileo's Daughter isn't a biography exactly. By using the father-daughter relationship as the backbone of the story, the book becomes a portrait of the age.

Sobel: Thank you, yes.

Dave: I was surprised to come across facts about Galileo in your other books that weren't in Galileo's Daughter.

Sobel: I don't like to repeat myself.

Dave: That must be hard, to leave out interesting information.

Sobel: It can be hard. But what was interesting... Galileo gets recreated every century. I grew up with a certain image: modern scientist, scoffs at the church. Then I found this letter from the daughter, and I thought, Good grief! Everything they taught me is completely wrong! So I finally had something to say about him.

I was always interested in Galileo, partly because of all the things I thought I knew about him, which were all interesting; they just turned out to be wrong. But he is much more interesting, much more complex, than I was taught. I'm not Catholic, but the whole point of this was that he was Catholic; he was not at all irreligious. Why was that taken away from him?

Dave: The fact that he could see his daughter's convent from his house... There's such tension built into their proximity. You can almost see him at the window, staring out.

Sobel: There she is, stuck in the convent. But she's utterly amazing, this woman: she knows the real estate market; she's so competent in so many ways, and completely subservient.

Dave: I was intrigued by the idea of Uranus spinning on its side. Of course that raised the inevitable question of which way water would flow down the drain.

Sobel: Since there is none, it's not a problem. But, you know, that's not true about the northern and southern hemispheres. If you go to the equator, you'll find people doing demonstrations to show that it spins the other way, but it's complete malarkey.

Meanwhile, Venus is upside-down.

Dave: And the novice asks: What's to say it's upside-down?

Sobel: It rotates the wrong way.

There are heady things out there, but it's not as hard as cosmology. You don't have to imagine eleven invisible dimensions.

Dave: Brian Greene does a very good job of bringing that topic down to a lay reader, but those are very difficult concepts he's addressing.

Sobel: It's trippy. Give me the planets any day.

Dave: About five years ago, driving across eastern Washington, I stopped at a campground that happened to be on the way. We didn't know the grounds were connected to a public observatory or that a meteor shower would be visible that night. We just thought, There sure are a lot of people here.

The place had its own big telescope, but by sundown the whole lawn was full of people on blankets with their own equipment. Are there particularly popular sites where amateur astronomers gather?

Sobel: I want to tell you: they're everywhere. They're even in New York City, where you can barely see six stars in the sky. They are diehard, and they love to get other people turned on to it. If you want to look through a telescope, just find the amateur astronomy group in your area. You can always find somebody, and they usually have at least one night a month where a group of them goes to a park or to someone's backyard. They'll spend all night explaining things to you, letting you look through the telescope.

It's a very unusual group of people. They are the nicest nerds in the world. And they all remember how excited they were the first time they saw Saturn through the telescope, whatever it was. They want to experience that again, and if you show up, you make that happen. It's more fun for them.

Dave: Back when I lived in Colorado, one night when the moon was at perigee we got a dump of fresh powder. We went out and sat on my roommate's car; there was so much light that we had no trouble reading. I've never experienced anything like it.

Sobel: It's very different in the mountains. You're up above the watery part of the atmosphere, and you see everything more sharply. It was a full moon?

Dave: A full moon at perigee with the snow covering the ground, so everything was white. It seemed like everyone in town came outside to walk through the streets and gawk.

Sobel: It's so great when that happens. There have been two total lunar eclipses that were visible over New York City recently, last year and the year before, and people would just come out. In New York City, people don't look at the sky, so it was a wonderful feeling, everybody standing on the streets and looking up. It was great.

Dave: Having lived in a city for eight years now, it's easy to forget that not so long ago the sky was a major part of everyday life.

Sobel: And we're even losing the live view of the universe now because of all the light pollution, which is a very scary thing. There are kids who have never seen the Milky Way and may never see it.

Dave: What is next for you? Did the planets lead you to another story?

Sobel: They didn't, but it's connected. I'm hoping to write a play about Copernicus. This is an idea I've had for at least thirty years. Thirty years ago, I thought, I don't know anything about writing a play, so I dropped it. Now I'm not so scared to try something difficult and new. I don't know if I can make it work, but I'm going to give myself a year or two to see if I can make any progress.

I still like a certain kind of magazine writing. There are fascinating issues afoot in the topic of time. The leap second is under threat, and this could be an interesting argument between astronomers and the corporate world. The corporate world doesn't like leap seconds; leap seconds throw off everyone's computer, so they just want to get rid of them. Which of course will mean that slowly the way we tell time will have nothing to do with where the earth is in space, and that's not good for astronomy. I'm intrigued by that.

Time is one of the most complicated subjects, but I keep getting drawn into it. The fellow that hosted the original Longitude Symposium [William Andrewes] has become a dialist—he makes sundials. They are accurate to within a minute. I wrote a piece about him because I find that utterly fascinating. Here's somebody who has worked with the most complex clockworks ever; it's nothing for him to take apart those machines. To go from that to something that has no moving parts... It's amazing.

Dave: What science writers you would recommend to readers?

Sobel: There's a fun book about space—it's really a sociology of planetary scientists—called Astro Turf by M. G. Lord. She's a good friend of mine. Her father was a rocket scientist, and she was a science fiction fanatic as a child, so it brings a lot of those ideas together.

Simon Singh is very good: The Big Bang.

My friend Diane Ackerman wrote a book of poems about the planets, which is fantastic. It was done in the seventies when she was a graduate student in English Lit. She was at Cornell, and she got Carl Sagan to be on her committee and spend an hour with her a day for a year. He loved the idea, that somebody would write poems about the planets.

Dave: Were you at Cornell at the same time?

Sobel: I was. I met her because I was a science writer and I was very interested in astronomy. One of the other reporters who covered the arts interviewed Diane and said, "You have got to meet this woman. You and she are going to be best friends." It was fun.

Dave: That's amazing: a Lit major spending an hour a day with Carl Sagan.

Sobel: He was so intrigued by the idea. He gave her a private tutorial in planetary science. It was unprecedented, and I'm sure it never happened again.

Dava Sobel visited Powell's City of Books on October 28, 2005.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.


Books mentioned in this post



Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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