If you liked Dava Sobel’s The Planets, you’ll love her book talk

Having reviewed Dava Sobel’s new book, The Planets, favorably, but not completely so, I was interested in seeing her book talk at the Drue Heinz lecture series in Pittsburgh.

She had wonderful visual art to accompany her talk, which a friend of hers had prepared for an illustrated version of the book that never appeared. The art was appealing on many levels, with lots of clever and interesting details (such as Clyde Tombaugh’s cat, Pluto). If any publisher of coffee table books is reading this, I think you should look into putting out an illustrated editon of The Planets with Sobel’s and the artist’s commentary on the illustrations.

In the talk itself, Sobel said explicitly that she did not believe in astrology, though she still annoyed me by calling a professional astrologer’s interpretation of the natal chart for the Galileo spacecraft “interesting” in light of the craft’s early problems with communication (which connects to the messenger, Mercury).

She admitted the risk she took by choosing Astrology as the theme and title for the chapter on Jupiter, namely that she would get negative comments like those in my review. Some reviewers were even harsher than I was. I recognized that she intended the theme to be cultural, but in this time when pseudoscience and anti-science have come to new prominence in U.S. culture and politics, I think those of us who write seriously about science can not afford to give the slightest hint of credibility to magical thinking as an alternative to science’s bedrock, observation.

But I’ll give Sobel high marks for a presentation that included very little reading from her own prose. Her intent was to tell those of us who had read the book more about why she wrote it while telling those who might want to read it what they would find there.

If you have a chance to hear her speak, I recommend it.

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