With stars in her eyes
Science writer hopes 'Planets' has universal appeal

By DONNA LIQUORI, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, November 13, 2005

The influence of the Solar System is all around us: calendars, watches, the tides, the fact that we rise each morning. And Dava Sobel's new book, "The Planets" (Viking Penguin; 231 pages; $24.95) is a reminder that we should look toward the heavens more often.

"There's a tremendous lack of awareness for any part of the natural world, especially for people who live in cities," said Sobel, who will speak Wednesday at the University at Albany as part of the New York State Writers Institute Visiting Writers Series.

"We've lost sight of where water comes from, where time comes from. It's just part of mechanization, industrialization," Sobel continues. "We're just buffered from all those things. While we have a lot of modern conveniences, it's not altogether a good thing. I mean, it's a sadness that so many people have never really seen the sky. In the city, even if you bother to look up, you don't see much."

The Solar System has fascinated the author of "Longitude" and "Galileo's Daughter" since she made her own models of it as a child.

"My planet fetish began, as best I can recall, in third grade, at age 8 -- right around the time I learned that Earth had siblings in space, just as I had older brothers in high school and college," are her opening words in a book of cohesive essays, all addressing the planets. An essay titled "Genesis" features the sun and "Lunacy" is devoted to the moon.

The book is aimed at intelligent people and is an inventive way of looking at the Solar System without being patronizing.

The influence of the planets on music, art and literature goes back to ancient times, which Sobel delves into, mentioning the Bible, William Blake, Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis and others.

"I had to think about this book for a long, long time because as you see there's no story. There isn't really a continuous story of the Solar System because most of the planets have been known since ancient times. And then we have some that are not even a hundred years since discovery and there is no single hero," Sobel said.

Each planet had its own personality, Sobel found, and a corresponding theme.

Sobel, who has won prizes for increasing public awareness of science, expects to hear from teachers regarding "Planets," just as she has with "Galileo's Daughter" and "Longitude." She also visits colleges, particularly Jesuit schools, where "Galileo's Daughter" has been incorporated into the curriculum. That book was based on 124 surviving letters to Galileo from his eldest child, a nun.

In "The Planets," Sobel uses the idea of a letter as a jumping off point for the chapter about Uranus. Here she drew on a letter she imagined Caroline Lucretia Herschel wrote in reply to the only other woman who had discovered a comet, Maria Mitchell, in the 1800s.

In her notes at the end of the book, Sobel said she "fictionalized" only the form, not the factual material, of the chapter honoring the two female astronomers.

"The idea came to me and I rejected it as too silly. I really loved the idea of these two women in touch with each other," she said, adding that it's possible the two could have been correspondents.

"It came more easily than any of the other chapters. ... Her voice was so strong to me," Sobel said. She also picked up details from Herschel's memoir like the fact that she kept a telescope in her sitting room. "It was just so great," Sobel said. "(She called it) 'The chief ornament of my sitting room.' "

In a similar vein, Sobel wrote from the view point of "Allan Hills 84001," the Mars rock found in the Antarctic ice fields in 1984.

"I was having fun. For each chapter, I did a double immersion. I'd be reading the theme material and then I'd be reading scientific reports. ... There is just so much science fiction written about Mars (more) than any of the other planets.

"So, I was reading the 'War of the Worlds' and 'The Martian Chronicles' and 'Dune,' with an eye toward picking up the science-fiction tone."

Sobel's footnotes and a section titled "Details" are much more entertaining than anything in a textbook. The sections give an insight into the amount of research she did, including where you can go to visit a model Solar System big enough to walk through.

The former New York Times science writer attends public observing nights at an observatory near her home in East Hampton.

"You're there with a lot of other people who are excited. That's something anybody can do. It's free. Astronomers love to get people hooked on the sky. It's a very sharing kind of hobby. And it's really enjoyable for them if a total newcomer comes along and knows nothing and wants to look. They love that."

As for peering through her own telescope, Sobel confessed to being "really terrible with equipment."

She concluded: "I'd rather just look at them in the sky."

Donna Liquori is a freelance writer from Delmar.

Dava Sobel