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Writing by the Light of the Stars: An Interview with Dava Sobel

By Bron Sibree for the Sunday Times:

Dava Sobel loves big questions, and astronomy asks some very big questions.

Long before she penned her ground-breaking 1995 debut bestseller, Longitude, Dava Sobel hankered to write a book about mathematician Copernicus (born today in 1473).

“He’s the person who turned the universe inside out, and I’ve been interested in him forever,” says Sobel, who tells how the reclusive Polish cleric was finally persuaded to go public with his revolutionary theory of a Sun-centred universe years after he first conceived of it in A More Perfect Heaven.

Just how astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus’s Sun-centred cosmos challenges the literal mind was brought home to Sobel recently when, after speaking at a New Hampshire bookshop, she and her audience were peppered with leaflets denouncing Copernicus’s ideas as “anti-God”.

“I was dismayed, especially in that part of the United States,” recalls Sobel. “I’ve not had other attacks like that, but certainly there is a large fundamentalist sector of the population that really feels the Bible is sufficient information.”

For Sobel, it was a “real throwback”, like being thrust back into the religious and economic tumult of the Reformation era in which Copernicus lived and her book is set. “Only worse,” she says, “because we are so far beyond that time. I was just incredulous. And I try to remind them of what Galileo said, ‘that the Bible is a book about how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.’”

Sobel’s own passion for the heavens, her ability to capture the mystery and beauty of astronomy on page, is a byword in literary circles. Indeed, this self-described science writer and former freelancer is widely credited with paving the way for a whole generation of books to be published from the annals of science and history with the elegance and beauty of Longitude.

She then went on to such celebrated bestsellers as Galileo’s Daughter and The Planets and insists she loves astronomy, “because I love the big questions. Astronomy asks some very big questions, and I’m drawn to it for that, and also just the beauty of it.”

There is a quiet, distilled beauty on every page of A More Perfect Heaven, which manages to not only chronicle the extraordinary discoveries that shaped the Copernican revolution, but to capture some essence of Copernicus himself, along with those he encountered.

At the centre of her non-fiction narrative is a play in which she dramatises the meeting of the Catholic Canon with the young German mathematician Georg Joachim Rheticus during the fevered height of the Reformation. Rheticus, himself a Lutheran, had heard rumours of Copernicus’s revolutionary ideas and had made the dangerous journey to Catholic Poland in 1539 to seek him out.

Rheticus stayed, risking persecution as a Protestant, and helped the ageing Copernicus finish the treatise he’d been working on in secret since 1514, then smuggled it to Germany and for printing.

Copernicus died just as On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres was published in 1543 and it was only much later, when Galileo championed Copernican theory, that it was placed on the notorious Index of Prohibited Books, where it remained “suspended until corrected” for two centuries.

As she has in all her previous works, Sobel brings to vivid life the tumultuous times in which Copernicus lived – a time in which Teutonic Knights regularly laid waste to the surrounding towns and villages. The violence of the times, along with the discovery that Copernicus also wrote an economic treatise “was a surprise” to Sobel, who captures the patient genius of a man diligently tending his daily chores as a Canon and as a medical doctor, all the while expanding his astronomical theories in secret.

“He did so many things, this lone revolutionary thinker. But what really excited me about the story was this other person, Rheticus, who heard about this idea and felt attracted to it enough to take this dangerous, difficult long journey to a place where his presence was against the law.

Sobel has longed to dramatise their undocumented conversation, since she first learnt of it from an article in Sky and Telescope Magazine in 1973 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’s birth.

“It told of Copernicus’s unlikely visitor, who encouraged him and pushed to him to finish the book and get it published. Someone who actually made Copernicus do what he’d avoided for a lifetime. And I thought about that conversation which is, of course, lost to history, and wanted to hear it. I toyed with the idea of writing a play, and then dropped it. Then I came back to it when Owen Gingerich was writing his story called, The Book Nobody Read, and asked me to read his manuscript. I got all excited about Copernicus all over again and thought, ‘I really want to do that’.”

At 64, Sobel seems to be picking up pace as well as taking more risks. First off, she plans to get her play produced. She then plans to begin a new book about the women who worked as “human computers” at Harvard College Observatory in the late 1800s .

“The director hired these women because he was irritated that the men doing the work were careless. He felt that women would do careful work and also work for less money, which of course they did,” Sobel says.

“But these women went onto to do extraordinary things. “I just find these stories so completely absorbing,” she laughs. It’s a little like falling in love.”

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