Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Planets Go Round and Round

Dava Sobel's Longitude was a pleasant surprise when I picked it up while doing research for a paper on Umberto Eco's excellent The Island of the Day Before. Sobel's writing style is hard to categorize, exactly - her style is too breezy to be hard science, too soft to be academic, too poetic to be journalism. Yet it's all three of those classifications at various times which makes her ... what exactly? Academic Popcorn? Beach Reading for Eggheads? Lyrical Poetry for Scientists?

However one wants to label Sobel's writing, Longitude is an engaging set of short non-fictive stories that tells the story of the quest for (if you can't guess) longitude. It was highly enjoyable and a quick read, so when I saw her latest book, The Planets, sitting in the bargain rack I grabbed it and looked forward to a day or two's worth of Sobel walking me through space.

If Sobel was a less-talented writer you could say Planets was too gimmicky, but she's talented enough to turn "gimmick" into "high-concept" and deliver a story that is equal parts about the Milky Way's planets as it is about humanity's fascination with them. There are 12 chapters to Planets, one for each planet (Uranus & Neptune share a chapter), the Sun, Earth's moon, and an Overview and Coda to frame the book. (The chapters progress by the planet's relative distance from the sun.) Instead of naming each chapter for a planet, however, Sobel names them by the subject she covers alongside the planet, so the chapter on Mars is called "Sci-Fi," Jupiter is "Astrology," Saturn is "Music of the Spheres," and so on.

By focusing on a different subject with each planet, Sobel's book continually refreshes itself. Though the numerous scientists who have scanned the cosmos in search of planets do tend to run together, the subjects rhythmically shift, giving each planet a distinct personality and context. Such an approach risks running itself off the rails through a credibility loss - Venus comes across as the planet of poets, for instance, as if poets wrote of no other planet, or as if Venus was ever looked at except through the poetic lens.

Sobel's a romantic and doesn't hide it, however. Calling her interest in planets her "planet fetish," Sobel's text is colored with a lyrical quality that would be annoying if 1) she attempted to hide it, and 2) wasn't able to pull it off. Her romanticized style is tinged with a playfulness, such as when she writes much of "Night Air" (the Uranus and Neptune chapter) as an imagined letter sent from Caroline Herschel to Maria Mitchell, an American astronomer, or in "Sci-Fi," when she writes from the perspective of "Alan Hills 84001," an allegedly Martian meteorite discovered in the Antarctic in 1984.

Because Sobel continually blends science in with her romantic playfulness, Planets doesn't take the plunge into a cosmic mysticism that would make her work unreadable (to me, at least). It is by no means a comprehensive look at anything, but it does manage to convey the relationship between humanity and the planets with whom we share the Sun's light and energy.

Dava Sobel's website (which is very pretty) can be found here.

1 comment:

Tommbert said...

You hit Sobel's style right on the head. Students of rhetoric would find a great place to study depending on the lens they took to her. I remember thinking along the same lines when I read Galileo's Daughter--"Is this supposed to be history or something else?" Too much like history to be read for the potboiling elements of Galileo's excommunication, probably on the borderline for tenure at a Research I school. But: she's too smart to be light reading.

I, for one, read it for fun because she was coming to Purdue on a tour for that particular book and I had picked it up at a going out of business sale. I liked it a lot and thought her talk was like she writes--well-researched and (like you said) breezy, the best word I've heard used to describe her style.

Also: beach reading for eggheads. Brilliant and totally apropos, a great way to decompress after a some heavy lifting.