Best-selling author talks new book, writing process

NYT Bestselling author Dava Sobel poses for a portrait in the library on Friday afternoon. Nancy Cermeno // Contributing Photographer
NYT Bestselling author Dava Sobel poses for a portrait in the library on Friday afternoon. Nancy Cermeno // Contributing Photographer

Dava Sobel, New York Times bestselling science writer, visited campus Thursday to talk about her new book and play,  “A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos.” The Humanities Center invited her to speak at a public lecture as part of the Stanford Distinguished Professors series.

On Wednesday, Sobel also met students in the Da Vinci Scholars program, an interdisciplinary curriculum that allows students to integrate the sciences with the humanities and social sciences.

The Miami Hurricane sat down with her to talk about the process of writing a play, her decision to go into science writing and her love for astronomy.

The Miami Hurricane: Why did you decide to make “A More Perfect Heaven” a play?

Dava Sobel: It is a mix. The play is called “And the Sun Stood Still.” That part is fiction. The other two-thirds of the book are a straightforward, narrative discussion of Copernicus, his time and his influence on the present day.
Originally I had thought of writing a play because he has a very interesting dramatic moment in his life, which is that he, even though he had come up with this great idea and worked on it for most of his 60 years – he lived to be 70, but worked on it for at least 30 years – he wasn’t going to publish it because he was anxious about the response he was going to receive. A young man then came to visit him and pushed him to publish. That was the thing that interested me. Everyone knows that the meeting happened. It’s well documented. But how do you convince someone to do something that he has avoided for his lifetime? I wanted to get at that. I wanted to try, by learning everything I could about Copernicus, if I could recreate that and what issues would come up between them.
In the course of doing that, my publisher, who had agreed to publish a play, urged me to tell the whole story around the play, that it would make a better piece of work.

TMH: Has the play been performed yet?

DS: There have been numerous readings. There was even a reading in Poland. It will have a fully staged performance this coming spring in Boulder. I am very excited.

TMH: What role will you have in the production?

DS: I’ll go out for the beginning of the rehearsal process because this group helped me improve the play. The version that appears in the book was something I wasn’t completely happy with yet. I felt it worked well enough in the book, but it could never get up on its feet and work. It didn’t have enough conflict and energy; it was missing something, but I didn’t know what. But I knew it would not work as a staged play unless I did something more to it.
When the book came out, I had a book tour and whoever was hosting me, whether it was a bookstore or university, I asked to round up a couple actors and have them do a couple of scenes. People will then get the idea.
In Boulder, Colo., I had the best actors. They put a lot of time into it even though what they did was 10 minutes, and the director had worked with them to have a little staging of it. After that long period of travel, I got in touch with the director and asked if he would give me a workshop, meaning we’d spend a week together with a group of actors and figure out what was wrong with the play. After the first read-through, he said to me, “You have an extraneous figure in the play. If you get rid of him and rewrite around him, it will all come together.” I would have never seen that myself, but it worked. It was the very thing. I’m really happy now.

TMH: Is there a particular moment in your life that led you to become a science writer?

DS: I think if I have ever heard the term when I was young, I would have said that. I’m 66, so when I was growing up and was at the Bronx High School of Science and excelling in English and creating writing classes, no one ever said to me to combine my interest in writing and science this way. No one was really aware of it. I went through all of college not knowing what to do.
I then got a job with a newspaper. Within one week at the newspaper, I knew that this is where I am supposed to be, and it was the year of the first Earth Day. Even then, I didn’t know it was called science writing. It took me another year before I met the science writer in the Cornell University News Bureau, and I loved what he was writing about. He left to take a job with the National Science Foundation, and I applied for his job and got it. Then I was really happy.
It wasn’t a big field yet. I started at Cornell in January 1973. The New York Times science section did not exist then. And before that, they certainly had science writers like Walter Sullivan. There wasn’t a sense that it deserved a whole section. The Science Times was the last of the daily sections to come into existence. The advertising department fought it and thought we should have Fashion Tuesday and not Science Times. The editors were interested in having a science section. I went to work at Science Times after a year.

TMH: Were you always interested in writing about astronomy?

DS: I was extremely interested in astronomy from my days at Ithaca, NY because I heard Carl Sagan speak even before he became famous. He just gave a local lecture. That was another moment for me. I interviewed him for one of the local papers and then I knew I wanted to write about astronomy.

TMH: What interests you?

DS: Many things. The interesting history, the beauty of it, the variety of it. There are all kinds of astronomers. Some are more technologically oriented and can set up remotely operated telescopes and those who can build their own observatories. There are others who appreciate the lore and history. There’s room for everybody. As a group of people, they’re very generous and inviting. There are groups called sidewalk astronomers who get people to look at the moon just for the thrill of seeing people react to it.

TMH: Should students study astronomy in college?

DS: I have mixed feelings about it. Students should follow what they’re interested in, usually that’s the best course. Often students who have an interest in astronomy discover to their horror that it’s mostly math and sink. Some colleges have courses constructed for students who are not strong with math. They make it more lab-oriented, meaning you go to the observatory. That would be of interest to almost anybody. It’s really exciting. It’s amazing how much you can see and much you might conjecture about what those shapes are and why does it look so different from the earth. It can be a very productive course of inquiry.

TMH: Do you have a favorite astronomer?

Sobel: It would be difficult to pick. I am thankful for Carl Sagan who got me interested in astronomy. I worked with Frank Drake on a book project. I like him. He is well known for thinking seriously about extraterrestrial life.

TMH: What is the current trend in astronomy?

DS: A lot of people are interested in XO planets. Since the mid 1990s, people have been discovering them frequently by more and more methods. In planetary science, the definition of the planet has also come into question. Is Pluto a planet? Then there are scientists who study stars and galaxies, and there are many different ways to study the light that comes from the stars. You can look at them through visible light or gamma rays. Various instruments are launched into space and make use of this technology to create a unified picture.

TMH: And how do you go about writing about science? How do you juggle the artistic side with the science?

DS: It is wanting to tell a story in an engaging and interesting way. People have a lot to do. If what you write is not interesting, they’ll move on. I’m not a scientist. I am definitely telling stories about science, which I like to do. I am very happy when people realize “geez I thought I was not interested in science, but I read your book and I was interested.” That’s a good day for me.

TMH: What challenges do you face when you write about science?

DS: I face the challenge to come to an understanding of the material myself, which is not easy, finding the best way to tell it, and then doing that.

Sometimes I have a hint of story. It’s different each time. I certainly I knew something about Galileo when I found out about his daughter, but the daughter was the revelation, the fact that she was a nun challenged everything I knew I about Galileo. That was the reason for approaching him through her. Most people did not know that he had children let alone two daughters who were nuns. That’s the picture of Galileo, enemy of the church.

TMH: For “Galileo’s Daughter,” did you get access to the actual letters?

DS: Yes, that was thrilling. I found out where the originals were, and another researcher gave me instructions to read the letters. I was also told that I could get a small number of photocopies to get used to her handwriting before going there. Before I left, I spoke to another experienced researcher and professor who laughed at me and told me that I was not prepared at all. He was ready to bet the person who had written to me from the library would not be there when I arrived. Nobody would not know who I was and not care that I had come all the way from the U. S.

He said that he was going to help me. He wrote me a letter on Harvard University stationary, describing it as a project of great distinction and merit. He signed the letter with all of his honorary letters and degrees. He put on a big gold seal and ribbon. He said “Take this way with you” and sure enough when I got there, no one knew who I was. I had my letter, and I got a pass for 6 months. So you need a lot of help and advice. It’s an adventure. You get an idea, but will you be able to find the material to back it up? You don’t really know that in the beginning. There are a lot of dark days.

TMH: What is a dark day?

DS: A dark day is when you can’t put one word after another. That still happens to me sometimes, but not often thank goodness.

TMH: What is your writing schedule?

DS: I don’t really brainstorm with anybody else. I like to wake up really early in the morning, which means not having much of a social life. Writing generally means not having much of a social life. It’s true for me. There’s a lot of time just being alone in the room. It works for me. Everyone has a best time of day to work. If you ask me what would be my best advice for other writers, figure out what’s your best of time. Cherish that time because if you miss those two hours, 12 hours at a different time won’t make up for them.

TMH: What advice would you give to science writers?

DS: I think it’s important to go to back to the people you interview and give them a chance to review your story in a way that you would never do about a political piece because the likelihood of your getting all the science correct in the interview is small. It’s very easy to misunderstand.

Even if you tape record everything, I think you could still miss the overriding significance of something. A scientist who is embarrassed by the way a journalist portrays that scientist’s work in the popular press won’t probably ever speak to another reporter again and for good reason.

People who are writing science now don’t have a lot of experience or background or grounding in science. They’re under pressure and maybe don’t do their homework. They get things wrong. It’s not fair to anyone. What’s the point of putting out something that’s wrong. It makes the researcher feel embarrassed.