Gurney's Inn
April 25, 2007

Orbiting With Science Author Dana Sobel

Last year Dava Sobel was invited to The Planet Definition Committee in Paris to discuss the scientific community's decision to oust Pluto from the planetary family.

"This topic was one small piece of the meeting that the public could relate to, but the whole point of this process was to redefine the word 'planet,'" said Sobel, who resides in East Hampton. "Some scientists had a problem with the definition of the word. In ancient Greek terms it means wanderer. With all the discoveries of new solar systems, there's a need for better terminology, and it's crucial there be an exact definition of the word, thus Pluto didn't have the criteria to be considered a planet."

Sobel, a former New York Times science reporter and acclaimed literary non-fiction science writer, has written for Audubon, Discover, Life and The New Yorker, and throughout her 35-year career, has penned three successful books. Her latest, The Planets went paperback last year. Galileo's Daughter was # 1 on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list and won the 1999 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for science and technology, a 2000 Christopher Award, and was a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in biography.

Longitude, her first book, was re-issued in 2005 for a special tenth-anniversary edition with a foreword by astronaut Neil Armstrong. It became a national and international bestseller and won several literary prizes, including the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and "Book of the Year" in England.

Born in the Bronx, Sobel began reaching for the stars while attending the Bronx High School of Science. She went on to earn two Honorary Doctor of Letters degrees from the University of Bath in England and Middlebury College in Vermont.

At 13, she thought being a writer was just a fantasy. "I thought being a writer meant being a novelist," Sobel recalled. "At 14, I wrote three short stories and I thought that was the end of it. I thought, if I was a real writer I'd be more productive than that. It wasn't until college when it resurfaced."

"Although my father wanted me to become a doctor like him, at around eight years old I became interested in the planets, partly because of my father," Sobel said. "My mother was a chemist and extremely interested in astronomy, eventually becoming a navigator in celestial navigation. But it was my aunt Ruth Gruber, who is still an author at 96 and has written 17 books, she's been a great role model for me."

Today, Sobel will interview Gruber about her new book of photographs, Witness, at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

"Science helps you realize how intricate the world is, and writing is the only way for me to learn anything," said Sobel. "Every writer faces struggles everyday. It does not get easier with experience, for you end up taking on more difficult problems and assignments." The Planets took Sobel six years to write.

Based on Sobel's books, "NOVA" on PBS produced television documentaries, "Lost At Sea: The Search for Longitude," as well as Galileo's Daughter, renamed "Galileo's Battle for the Heavens" which went on to win an Emmy. In England, Granada Films adapted Longitude for a TV movie starring Jeremy Irons, airing on A&E, while both Longitude and Galileo's Daughter premiered as stage plays in the U.K. "NOVA" is currently in production of The Planets.

So what is it about her books that attract other mediums to adapt them? "The subjects are big and important, and the characters, if well-known, are shown in a new context, the unknown new ones are shown to be interesting . . . I think that's why."

The Boston Museum of Science gave her its prestigious Bradford Washburn Award, and it was this sector along with some book critics that were angered by her book, The Planets, because Sobel incorporated astrology into her scientific studies of the planets. "Astrology is very interesting, but some scientists don't feel astrology has a place in science . . . and then for many people astrology is as far as they go," she admitted.

The topic she's always wanted to write about but hasn't is the early women astronomers of the 1900s. "The women that worked at Harvard. They're next on my list," she informed.

Sobel finds inspiration in a question or a fact that she didn't know before. "Or just the way something looks," she explained. She has been greatly influenced by Carl Sagan, "For awakening people to the connection to the universe," and Rachel Carson, "Because she changed the world for the better by something she wrote." Joan Didion, "For the precision in her language," and lastly, Diane Ackerman, "For her poetic sensibility."

For a woman who's traveled to space through her prose, she longs to go to the moon, "But it probably won't happen. It's arduous and I'm not getting any younger . . . but you never know," she said, adding, her favorite planet is still Earth.

Long Island is known for UFO sightings and some have told stories of abductions, but as far as other life forms on this universe, "We can have them, but they don't need to visit us. I think UFOs are just that, not necessarily alien spacecraft. This universe is so big there's lots of room for anything else to exist," she declared.

And when it comes to heaven, Sobel believes that question is outside of science and is a matter of faith. But wars, drought, hunger and devastation can impact a planet. "It's certainly effected this planet with our activity on it, by changing the temperature in a way that might doom us. We've pretty much destroyed other forms of life," she said.

In 2006, Sobel was the Writer in Residence at the University of Chicago, where she taught a seminar in science writing and said it was the hardest work she's ever done. While there, Sobel began working on a new project, And The Sun Stood Still, a stage play about 16th century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Last year she also received a grant for the play from the Sloan Foundation for a commission by The Manhattan Theatre Club, and this month a Guggenheim fellowship.

Sobel has lectured at The Smithsonian Institute, NASA's Flight Center, The Hayden Planetarium and The London Royal Geographical Society. She has also appeared on NBC's "Today Show" and C-SPAN's "Booknotes." On Tuesday, May 22, Sobel's son, Isaac Klein, will direct her in a reading of the play for The Naked Stage, at Guild Hall in East Hampton.

For more information on the author and lecturer, visit

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