Last night I went to a CalTech/Vroman’s bookstore event, at Beckman auditorium at CalTech (the round auditorium I call the IceCream Cake building). Dava Sobel was the speaker (Doc M and I have been calling her DAH-vah Sew-BELL. She was introduced last night as DAY-vah SEW-bl. That’ll take some mental adjustment to pronounce her name differently.) Sobel’s new book is Planets, a book of essays (there is no central story, no hero) on the planets, drawn from popular culture.

I immediately saw that this was a departure from her other books—Galileo’s Daughter, history and correspondence between Galileo and his daughter, and Longitude, the story of the making of the chronometer, an extremely precise watch that made all the difference in knowing where you were during the age of exploration, that time ranging after the world was discovered to be round and before, well, today.

Dava Sobel read from her chapter on the moon, “Lunacy.” It jarred me. Not really knowing much of this book, but having enjoyed her other books, I was taken aback by the story: She described her friend Carolyn, who’d been given a small sampling of moon dust by a gentleman friend who was inside of (and had connections with) the Apollo space program. What’d Carolyn do with her tiny sample of the moon? She ate it, and Sobel’s essay recounts her own reaction of incredultiy and jealousy of her friend…. moon dust that kissed her lips. She was a glowing Moon Goddess. Oh, even as I type this, I’m forgetting the central part of what it was about the moon and its aspirations that made Sobel jealous. Oh well.

She took us on a visual tour of the planets, through the illustrations of Lynette Cook (alas, the images aren’t on Cook’s web site that I can see, despite Dava Sobel’s statement that they were)

Jupiter was amusing: Sobel commissioned an astrological chart for the Galileo spacecraft, which was sent to Jupiter. After desscribing the difficulties with deploying the high-gain antenna on the spacecraft and the workarounds to transmit and receive signal to and from the craft, Sobel pointed out a trouble spot in the spacecraft’s astrological chart between Jupiter and Mercury (which governs communication). Ha. Also: the scientists who read the manuscript for technical accuracy to a person questioned this astrological stuff, writing commetns like “How does this work?” in the margin of the chapter where she discussed astrology. But, Sobel says, Galileo, upon discovering moons around Jupiter then plotted their astrological charts, especially as concerns how they influence the lives of the various members of the Medici family.

Like I said, this was a tour of the planets through popular culture. Mythology, stories, essays, think-pieces. One questioner at the end asked the question I had: What was her thought process for these essays? She spent about a year wondering what to do, and considered writing about each planet in relation to a scientist, but found the question of treating the living or the dead (much preferred), and offending the ones not selected. She discarded that idea in favor of the popular culture, though she didn’t elaborate on how she arrived on the popular culture theme. Her agent was the inspiration for the whole work: He asked her, “What’s the difference between the solar system and the galaxy… and between the galaxy and the universe?” and said, write a book for me. Don’t talk over my head, and don’t talk down to me. Write a book for someone who’s ignorant but intelligent.

One response to “Lunacy”

  1. Hans Nyberg

    Hi Susan
    Sorry this is not about Lunacy but about Mars which is closer than in the next 13 years on Sunday.

    You know my Fullscreen QTVR from the Moon but I can not remember if you seen the Mars fullscreens.
    I just updated with 4 new panoramas from Rover Spirit. Check out the dust devils.