Emily LakdawallaOct 24, 2005

An evening with Dava Sobel

It's late, but I thought I'd write down a few notes about my pleasant evening before turning in. I've just come home from Caltech, where I saw author Dava Sobel give a presentation on her latest book, The Planets. Her earlier books include Longitude and Galileo's Daughter. I first saw Dava speak a few years ago shortly after Galileo's Daughter was released. She is a lovely speaker, with a gentle voice and a very humane outlook on the history of science -- her stories are not just stories about scientific discoveries, but about the people involved; the details she provide are sometimes of the heroic sort, but just as often they are more mundane, helping the reader (or at least me) to connect with these heroes on a more personal level. For instance, one of my favorite features of Galileo's Daughter-- which is based upon the letters written from Galileo's illegitimate daughter, a nun by the name of Suor Maria Celeste, to her father -- is the numerous paragraphs in the letters in which Maria Celeste asks her father to return this or that basket that she sent to him last month, or if he could please send a few yards of fabric, as she needed to sew more clothes. No matter how hard we try to make it a completely objective process, science is an activity performed by humans, with all their quirks and fallibilities, and Dava does a great job of conveying that.

Anyway, she gave a lovely presentation on her latest book, which I'm sad to say I've not yet had time to read. I was a little concerned that I might be bored with the presentation because after all while I didn't know much about the quest for the determination of longitude or Suor Maria Celeste before reading Dava's earlier books I would like to think that I know a thing or two about planets. And indeed Dava did set out to write a book titled The Planets that was aimed at people who were educated in general but ignorant about the planets in specific. For those of you who read this weblog, you might not realize just how ignorant the general public is about what's above their heads. And that's not really surprising; after all I was completely, wholly ignorant about economics until I after I started dating an economist. It just wasn't "on my radar screen," as an engineer would say. But Dava's presentation was as interesting as always. She explained that in this book she used a device of exploring each planet through a theme -- the theme of lunacy for the moon, of music for Saturn, and so on. Her greatest risk, she remarked, was choosing the theme of astrology in her exploration of Jupiter. As a science writer, she said, she is not supposed to write about astrology. But she pointed out that if you are a person who is ignorant about astronomy, odds are good that you know at least a little bit -- and possibly a lot -- about astrology. Not to mention the fact, she pointed out, that all of the great founders of astronomy whose names we know -- Galileo and Kepler, to name two -- were themselves astrologers. She said that as part of her research for the book she went to an astrologer and had the horoscope cast for the spacecraft Galileo, and she had a funny story to tell about that. It's important, if you want to make a connection with the man in the street, to know what kinds of things are in their heads -- be it astrology or pop culture or whatever. Then you can use those things as metaphors or devices to hook their attention, give them a familiar place to start, then help them walk out into new territory. Most of her presentation was focused on a series of paintings produced by artist Lynette Cook for the book. Sadly, the book's editors chose in the end not to print the paintings. Dava said they are on Cook's website but I couldn't find the specific page...

By the way, if you are interested in Dava's new book and buy it through this direct link then 15% of the purchase price comes back to us at The Planetary Society from amazon.com, which is nice of them.

I also ran in to author M. G. Lord while I was there. I had seen M.G. and Dava together at an event for M. G.'s latest book, Astro Turf, about the history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- I think that A. J. S. Rayl is working on a review of the book and will be posting it on this website before long. And after the event was over I chatted with Cassini RADAR scientist Rosaly Lopes for a while. She is greatly anticipating Friday's "T8" flyby of Titan, in which they hope to finally get some RADAR coverage over the Huygens landing site. She asked me to keep my fingers crossed that it works right this time (Cassini had a small problem with the solid state recorders on T7 and lost some of the RADAR data). I said I really hoped that nothing like what happened on T7 happened this time. She immediately said "Some data is better than no data!" She worked on Galileo so she has experienced the total loss of data many times before. I'll be talking wiith her again on Monday after the flyby is over -- I hope to be reporting good news after that!

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