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November 29, 2005

The Uncommon Interview: Dava Sobel

This year’s Vare Nonfiction Writer-in-Residence is Dava Sobel, a former science writer for The New York Times and the author of multiple books. Sobel took some time out of her book tour for her newest book, The Planets, to chat with the Maroon about her work and the “Writing about Science” class that she will teach at the U of C next quarter.

CM: How would you describe your area of study exactly? Was there a particular moment or event that made you realize that it was what you wanted to do?

DS: I would call my area science writing. I now mostly write about astronomy and the history of science. Probably the moment that pointed me in that direction was attending a public lecture that Carl Sagan gave in Ithaca before he was super-famous. I remember going to that and finding it so fascinating and really wanting to read more about astronomy and to write about it. I did that for a while and I, in fact, got a job at Cornell and used to be the science writer in their news bureau.

But it’s strange: When I went to work for The New York Times I was actually applying there for a job as a general assignment science writer, which was the open position. When I got all the way through the interviewing process, up to the tippity top, the editor said that what he thought the paper really needed was someone to write about psychiatry and psychology, and was I willing to do that. Well, at that point I certainly was, and it was amazing to me that I could be hired for a position where I really knew nothing about what I was supposed to be writing about. That just goes to prove what I have always suspected, which is that life is a long experience in on-the-job training.

CM: Were you a science geek growing up?

DS: Well, I came from a pretty geeky family, so I didn’t think that was weird. Then I went to the Bronx High School of Science where—I mean, you want to talk geeks? Those were the days when the boys who were really geeks wore slide rules on their belts like swords in scabbards. I started to realize then that I wasn’t really a geek and suspected that I didn’t have the temperament to be a scientist, which was confirmed for me in college. But I didn’t know what else to do because science writing wasn’t an identified discipline during my formative years, so I had to fall into it backwards later.

CM: What is it about this field that interests you?

DS: I like real stories. I like doing research. I really loved writing term papers and my work is like that. What I get to do in these books is try to approach the material from a personal take on it and find out the facts, but then arrange them in a way that I think will appeal to people who are not geeks or who actually avoid reading about science. That’s the most rewarding thing for me—when somebody says, “I would never pick up a science book, but someone gave me your book and I read it and I understood it.”

CM: What is your new book, The Planets, about?

DS: Well, it’s about the planets for people who are ignorant to the subject, perhaps even uninterested in it. It approaches the planets from the areas of popular culture that mention planets—so, mythology, science fiction, astrology. Each chapter is about a particular planet, but told through a particular theme. So the Mars chapter, for example, is the chapter that is about science fiction because there has been more science fiction written about Mars than about any of the other planets. The voice of the chapter is also different, so that it sounds like a science fiction story.

It was a long time coming to figure out how to handle it because there’s no shortage of books about the planets. It’s just that many of them assume a fair amount of prior knowledge or they talk down to the reader and I was aiming for something that was for the sophisticated intellectual who didn’t know anything about this subject.

CM: What inspired you to write this book?

DS: My own interest, really, in the planets—I just really loved them. But also my agent, who is the perfect audience, actually asked me one day, “What is the difference between the solar system and the galaxy? And between the galaxy and the universe?” He’s a person who is extremely well educated, highly successful, highly intelligent, so I was just amazed that it was all a big blur to him. He really had no idea what was up. So he said, “Why don’t you write a book for me? Because I would like to know about these things, but I don’t have a way in.”

CM: What will your course, “Writing about Science,” be about? What texts will students read? What is the ultimate point that you’d like students to glean from the class?

DS: We’re going to read lots of things. I am a judge this year in the L.A. Times book prizes in the science-and-technology category, so I will be bringing with me the books that are contenders for the prize and we’ll read one or two of those. We’re going to be talking about science books, but also about the science sections in major newspapers, writing science for general interest and science magazines.

What I’m really hoping is that the students who take this class have a particular goal. I’m expecting some of them will be science majors who just want some help being able to report their own work for a journal or a paper of their own, whereas others may be interested in doing the kind of work that I do. I know there isn’t a journalism concentration, but that doesn’t mean there might not be students really interested in becoming reporters who would take the class. I’m hoping that each person will work on a project that is of interest to that person and we can have one-on-one time to talk about it.