Flamsteed Astronomy Society

Dava Sobel at the Royal Institution

September 6, 2005

Two Flamsteed members went to see author Dava Sobel at the Royal Institution of Great Britain on Tuesday September 6.


Ms Sobel was speaking during a lecture tour to promote her new book The Planets.   Her previous books have included “Galileo’s Daughter”; “To Father — The letters of Sister Maria Celeste to Galileo”; and Longitude” the story of John Harrison’s struggle to perfect his marine timekeeper and get recognition from the Board of Longitude, especially significant of course to the ROG and the Flamsteed Society.

Dava Sobel is charming, articulate, and very entertaining.  She is a journalist who’s early interest in science has found its ideal outlet in these books.   She encountered the story of John Harrison and the search for the longitude when sent to cover the Longitude Symposium in 1993 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Her style combines graphic descriptions of the human drama in each story with the historic scientific importance of the work.  The books are highly readable and very entertaining.


The evening at the RI was chaired by Sir Arnold Wolfendale, previously 14th Astronomer Royal.  Sir Arnold explained conditions in the RI’s lecture theatre that night as a good simulation of the surface of Mercury, entirely appropriate to the evening’s subject.  We enjoyed his dry, robust style and he was promptly signed-up by Jane for a future Flamsteed Star Lecture.


My very educated mother just served us nine pies


Dava began her talk with a reading from Chapter 1 of the new book which includes this mnemonic to recall the names and order of the planets.  She then took us on a solar system tour through the medium of paintings by Lynette R. Cook.   Cook has specialised in artist’s impressions of exo-planets.  The tour un-earthed (?) many useless but very entertaining facts — features on Venus are named for women; Herschel made telescopes for Maskelyne (the villain of Longitude — boo, hiss).


Sir Arnold chaired a Q&A discussion which ranged from the banal to the positively pugnacious.   “Did Ms Sobel realise the environmental consequences of flying here across the Atlantic?” ;  “What is her favourite space probe?” — the Voyagers; “How do you tell a comet from a planet?”;  “What is her next project?” — A play about Copernicus apparently.  “Should we name the newly discovered 10th planet ‘Sobel’?”;  “Is it really a planet?”

What did Dava think to be the chances of discovering life on other worlds?  “38 percent”  (ask a silly question…)


There was a sigh of relief as we were released from the painful torture of the miniscule seats and thermo-nuclear temperatures of the lecture theatre.  We could have listened to Dava for hours except cramp was becoming excruciating.


The evening ended with a glass of wine (or several if you were quick and pushy) in the RI’s library, while Dava signed copies of the book (and Mike’s cherished first edition of Longitude — only the UK first he hastens to add, and not the first printing state).   We were warmly greeted as ROG tour guides (No Dava, we must thank YOU, for putting us on the map!).  Finally off to Strada, Blackheath for a late pizza (note subtle product placement).


MRD  2005-09-09

“The Planets” by Dava Sobel

Fourth Estate 2005 — £15