Dava Sobel is the bestselling author of many books, including “Longitude,” “Galileo’s Daughter,” “The Planets,” and “The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars.”
She’s been a Pulitzer nominee. She’s been a Guggenheim Fellow. She’s also had an asteroid named after her: 30935 Davasobel.
And she’s just launched “Meter,” a monthly poetry column for Scientific American magazine.
So, what’s on your to-do list today?
The Indy caught up with Sobel, who wrote an astronomy column for The Independent in the late 1990s, and convinced her to take a few moments from her busy schedule to tell us about her newest project.
When did you read your first issue of Scientific American? Did you grow up in a household with a subscription to it?
I saw it in the house before I ever read it. Yes, my parents were subscribers. I’ve been reading it regularly since I was in high school.
How did the Meter column come about?
On August 28, 2019, I was listening to Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac,” as I do every day. He mentioned the anniversary of Scientific American in his history notes for the day, and said that the earliest issues had included poetry. That surprised and delighted me, so I looked up the first issue on-line, and sure enough . . .
I knew only one person on the current editorial staff, Clara Moskowitz, the senior editor for space and physics. I wrote to her that same day to see whether there might be any interest in reinstating poetry in the magazine. She consulted her colleagues, who turned out to be unanimously enthusiastic about the idea. Timing was on my side, too, since this year, 2020, is the magazine’s 175th anniversary — a choice moment for a new feature.
Many would think science and poetry are incongruous.
They are not at all incongruous. I know quite a few scientists who read poetry, and just as many poets who love science. Our recently-resident musician laureate, Billy Joel, sang of “science and poetry” in the lyrics to his “Two Thousand Years:”
“There will be miracles
After the last war is won
Science and poetry rule in the new world to come”
When did your love of poetry begin?
My own love of poetry started early, thanks to excellent grade school teachers who encouraged us to (OK, made us) memorize poems. I can still recall the first Carl Sandburg poem I committed to memory.
How do you choose the poem for each month’s column?
I have invited several poets to submit their work. I’ve also canvassed scientists and historians of science who admire poetry to suggest candidates. A few poets heard about the column and stepped forward. I hope more will do so.
I like to vary the topic from month to month. We started with natural history in January, then went to math in February, astronomy in March, and ecology in April. Coming soon: geology, climate change, archaeology, and astrophysics.
The pages contain such striking images. Who chooses them?
Creative director Michael Mrak. Some months he commissions illustrations to accompany the text, as for the February column, a poem about math demanded an imaginative artist’s treatment. The March poem concerns the “Great American Eclipse” of 2017, so he chose one of the many photographs taken of that event. I’ve been delighted with his choices.
The Meter column in the March issue features a poem by Christopher Cokinos titled ‘Eclipse.’ You’ve said you’re a “chaser of solar eclipses” and that “it’s the closest thing to witnessing a miracle.” How many have you seen?
As of this year, I’ve witnessed nine, from various parts of the world, including the 2012 total solar eclipse in Australia. I went to Wyoming in 2017 for the one that is the subject of the March poem.
Are you working on any other forthcoming books or other projects?
No new books in the works at this point. Dreaming of a science poetry