Science journalist speaks on exploring the esoteric

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Award-winning science journalist and author Dava Sobel spoke about the challenges and pleasures of writing about science yesterday in Salomon 001 in the third installation of the Great Nonfiction Writers Lecture Series.

Sobel, a former science reporter for the New York Times, interspersed readings from her work with personal anecdotes and advice about the difficulties and rewards of science writing.

“The major challenge is finding a story that you really love,” Sobel said. “Especially in book writing, it’s a long time to sit alone in a room. If you don’t have a real feeling for the subject, it gets very lonely in there.”

With frank humor that garnered many laughs from the audience of about 80, Sobel spoke on the challenges of relating esoteric topics to the average reader. Sobel’s first book “Longitude” chronicled the work of 18th century clockmaker John Harrison, who first devised a method for determining ships’ longitudes at sea, a perennial humdinger that had plagued the likes of Galileo and Isaac Newton.

Sobel recalled publishers, family members and strangers alike discouraging her from tackling such a strange subject.

“Everyone turned me down on the grounds that it sounded boring, weird and esoteric,” she said. “Longitude” later went through 29 hardcover printings.

Sobel’s next project was based on the letters sent by Galileo’s eldest daughter – a Catholic nun – to the scientist. Sobel was struck by the discord between her childhood knowledge of the famed champion of secular science and the pious figure her archival research uncovered, so she decided to take a unconventional approach in “Galileo’s Daughter” by examining the relationship between Galileo’s discoveries and his beliefs.

“It seemed like it would be very interesting to look at Galileo’s science in the light of his Catholic faith,” Sobel said.

Sobel talked about the year she spent translating more than one hundred letters from classical Italian and the subsequent frustration of being told by her publisher that most of them would have to be cut from the book.

Reading from the letters, Sobel elicited from the audience several sentimental sighs at the eloquent reverence Maria Celeste expressed for her famed and troubled father.

Departing from what she called her previous “narrative stories about heroes,” Sobel intended her most recent book “The Planets” as “a book about the planets for people who were not interested.” Sobel said she was inspired to take on the planets when her agent, whom she described as “highly intelligent,” asked her the difference between the solar system, the galaxy and the universe.

This incident, Sobel said, highlighted the way that most people can get by without a well-developed science literacy. For this reason, guiding the interests of the general public toward science can be a challenge.

To help readers relate to the solar system, Sobel tried to connect each planet to an Earthly cultural theme that captured its character. Mars was science fiction culture. Pluto’s mysterious qualities and ambiguous position in the solar family made UFOs and immigration the most effective lenses for connecting the distant planet with our own, Sobel said. “Pluto got admitted to the solar system only to have its citizenship questioned,” she added.

Sobel also noted that she always writes for a target reader. For “Longitude,” Sobel said she had her mother, a navigator, in mind.

“I have all these memories with her sextant and charts,” she said, “and I know she didn’t know the history of the subject.”

Citing what she sees as a disconnect between science literature and the general public, Sobel said she hopes to communicate science to non-scientists. She remembered her agent complaining that most science books “either assume too much prior knowledge or talk down” to the reader.

Sobel also said she was glad she had the opportunity to visit a course on science writing offered by the English Department while she was on campus.

Laura Kerber GS, who studies geology, said Sobel’s writing aims at filling an essential void – the stories behind great scientists and great scientific discoveries. Kerber said scientific ideas must be understood along with the history from which they arise, something she keeps in mind in her own studies.

Aaron Weinblatt, a research assistant in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, described “Longitude” as a book his dad would read on the porch. But it was just that quirky, mundane character, he said, that he found so engaging.

“It was this weird, esoteric, boring thing that I’d never really thought about, that turned out to be a huge, history-making thing,” he said.

The next event in the Great Nonfiction Writers Lecture Series on May 5 will address the documentary film genre and feature Davis Guggenheim ’86, director of “An Inconvenient Truth.”