Yesterday’s lecture by science writer Dava Sobel took place in an unlikely venue for such an event — the Whitney Humanities Center.
The auditorium usually reserved for Directed Studies lectures and film screenings was instead the site of a discussion of, among other things, Sobel’s involvement in Pluto’s demotion from “planet” status. Sobel is a former science journalist for the New York Times and the author of several books, including “Galileo’s Daughter,” the best-selling “Longitude,” and her latest, “The Planets.”
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Shulman’s lecture was part of the Shulman Lectures in Science and the Humanities, which this year are focused on the theme of “Drama and Science.” Maria Menocal, director of the Whitney Humanities Center, said Sobel’s work represents the synergy of science and the humanities that is the focus of the lecture series.
Sobel said she targeted her latest work to the average reader, who does not have a great deal of background in science but does not want to be patronized by the author. Her archetype for such a reader, Sobel said, was her literary agent, Michael Carlisle ’75, who felt he lacked the knowledge necessary to enjoy most science books.
“I like when I write to have a person in mind that I’m speaking to,” Sobel said. “Because who is the general public? I have no idea.”
“The Planets” studies each of the planets of the solar system and associates each with a phenomenon in popular culture — the planet Mercury with the Greek and Roman myths, for example, and Jupiter with astrology.
Although she was pleased with how the book turned out, writing an original book in a supersaturated field was difficult, Sobel said.
“With [The Planets], the challenge was to find a way to talk about the planets that hadn’t been done a thousand times,” she said. “It took me more than a year of walking around to come up with the idea of the different themes. That seemed a great way to do it, to make the science painless,” Sobel said.
But her inclusion of astrology in a scientific book was met with some criticism, she said.
“I’ve gotten into terrible trouble with this book, partly because I really did talk about astrology,” Sobel said. “Astrology and astronomy definitely have a united history. Modern astronomers would like to disassociate themselves from that past.”
Partly because of the publication of “The Planets,” Sobel was chosen last year by the International Astronomical Union to serve on a panel charged with defining what it means to be a planet. The resulting definition would help the IAU decide whether it should continue to classify Pluto as a planet or change its status.
Sobel said the panel represented one of the first instances of trying to scientifically define what it means to be a planet.
“It was time to have a real scientific definition,” she said.
Sobel said as the only non-scientist on the panel, she felt somewhat intimidated, but the venture “worked out well.”
“We actually arrived at a definition that would have included Pluto,” she said.
But that definition, which she said defined a planet as any celestial body with a force of gravity strong enough to give it a round shape, would have included many other objects in the solar system, including one of Pluto’s moons. After meeting with opposition from the scientific community, the definition was rejected by the IAU, which demoted Pluto to “dwarf planet” status — a decision Sobel said she is not pleased about.
Sobel is now working on a theatrical play about Copernicus’ life, entitled “And the Sun Stood Still.”
One audience member asked Sobel to describe her writing process for each of her books. The author said she chooses topics by looking for a somewhat esoteric and “weird” subject that nonetheless strikes her fancy.
Students who attended the lecture said they found Sobel engaging and enjoyed hearing about her writing process.
“She exceeded my expectations in terms of the humor that she brought to the lecture,” Caroline Howe ’07 said. “I’m really looking forward to reading her new book.”
The Shulman lectures, offered for the first time this year, are named after Robert Shulman, Sterling professor emeritus of chemistry and molecular biophysics and biochemistry.