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Scientists' Nightstand: Dava Sobel

Greg Ross

Prolific author Dava Sobel, best known for her very successful book Longitude (Walker, 1995), has covered science for the New York Times and contributed articles to Audubon, Discover and Life. Her most recent book is The Planets (Viking, 2005).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

At age 58, my experience as a science writer has stewed long enough to include every kind of work that could fit under that job description: I've been a science reporter for the New York Times, an author and coauthor of science books, an editor of a science anthology and a contributor of articles about science to many magazines, including Harvard Magazine and The New Yorker. I have a great good time doing this work. Someone once said to me, "I would hate your job, because it's like writing one long research paper after another." It is indeed just like that, which is why I love it so much.Dava SobelClick to Enlarge Image

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

I am currently poised to read every popular science book published in 2005, to fulfill my term as a judge for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes (in the science and technology category). For this reason, I'll limit my discussion to everything but popular science books published this year. I just finished reading Stiff, by Mary Roach (W. W. Norton, 2003), which made me laugh out loud, a lot, but also convinced me to become an organ donor—something I'd waffled on in the past. I am just starting The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion (Knopf, 2005), because I so much admire her chiseled writing style. I don't usually get to read quite so extensively outside my own work requirements, but I've been on a book tour for The Planets, which has meant three weeks of plane rides to someplace every morning at seven, so I've been making the best of the time in the air.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

While researching, I read every day at my desk, making notes, in the early or mid-morning. I do very little recreational reading while working on a project, but when I can, I sit with a book in an easy chair in the afternoon. Since I get to travel a great deal, I often read on the road.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

Limiting myself to nonliving writers, I confess a love for Patrick O'Brian, whose Aubrey-Maturin novels (not to mention his biography of Joseph Banks) gave me my two years before the mast. My favorite nonfiction titles also concern exploration and adventure, such as Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing (McGraw-Hill, 1959). Among poets, I have to break my "nonliving" rule and cite my friend Diane Ackerman, whose planet poems in The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral (Morrow, 1976) have long inspired and delighted me.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

Returning to science books (by nonliving authors) to focus my thinking, I choose Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (Riverside Press, 1962), because it changed the world for the better; Carl Sagan's The Cosmic Connection (Cambridge University Press, 2000), because it succeeded in making readers feel connected to the cosmos; and Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle (1839), because it showed how much fun a young man could have doing science.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632). The author survived the worst imaginable reviews and condemnation, yet ultimately returned to work and even dared to write another book.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

1776, by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 2005); Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer (Houghton Mifflin, 2002); The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1923).

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Naturalist, by E. O. Wilson (Island Press, 1994)—a book I thoroughly enjoyed reading as an adult, though I remember thinking all the way through how it could truly inspire a young person to choose a career in science.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham (Houghton Mifflin, 1955)—a true accounting, although told in the form of a novel, of how the young Nathanial Bowditch, while an indentured apprentice, taught himself Latin to read Newton's Principia and then went on to codify the science of navigation.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

My own books fit in this category, and those of my friends as well. At the risk of insulting someone by unintentional exclusion, I can heartily endorse at least five off the top of my head, in alphabetical order by author:

Through a Universe Darkly, by Marcia Bartusiak (HarperCollins, 1993)

The Universe and the Teacup, by K. C. Cole (Harcourt Brace, 1998)

Astro-Turf, by M. G. Lord (Walker, 2005)

Seeing and Believing, by Richard Panek (Viking, 1998)

The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner (Knopf, 1994)

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

Very broadly defining my "field" as history of astronomy, I recommend The Book Nobody Read, by Owen Gingerich (Walker, 2004). It chronicles his own 30-year search for all extant copies of De Revolutionibus [Copernicus' 1543 work establishing the sun as the center of the solar system] and, in the process, reveals not only which famously great astronomers (Tycho, Kepler, et al.) read Copernicus, but who owned which copy, and just what each one wrote in the margins, thereby providing a fascinating case history of how ideas spread.

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