Author Profile: Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel is a writer of popular science books, and also play/s as well. I first came across her work, believe it or not, through TV. Some years ago, I came across a TV movie/drama called Longitude, starring Sir Micheal Gambon (Dumbledore the second 🙂 ) and Jeremy Irons, based on the development of the marine chronometer, which revolutionised navigation on the seas, since for the first time, sailors could calculate the longitude with some degree of certainty. I really enjoyed the programme (the subject and how it was made), and looking it up, I realised this was a book (based on one, that is). And some time later, when I bought the book and read it, I loved it.

Longitude.jpg

The book tells us the story of John Harrison, a self-educated carpenter and clock-maker who invented the marine chronometer. Apart from the struggles that Harrison faced in perfecting his instrument, a process that took him many years, the book also tells of how he had to also struggle with the Board of Longitude, particularly Rev. Nevil Maskelyne, astronomer royal, to prove the merit of his invention and claim the prize offered for the resolution of the problem. This of course, did leave me with a fairly negative opinion about Rev. Nevil Makelyne, which only changed to something more positive when I read The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes.

John Harrison and Rev. Nevil Maskelyne

Source: (Harrison) By Philippe Joseph Tassaert (1732-1803)After Thomas King († circa 1796 date QS:P,+1796-00-00T00:00:00Z/9,P1480,Q5727902) [1767 painting] ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; (Maskelyne)By Edward Scriven, 1775-1841, printer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, having liked the book so much, I began to look into the author and her other works. Born in 1947, Sobel was a freelance science writer and columnist with several publications (including Harvard Magazine, Science Digest, and the New Yorker) for over two decades, and turned full time author of books after the publication and success of Longitude. To date, she has authored seven books (plus the Illustrated Longitude), of which I’ve read two and have a third waiting on my TBR. All her books deal with science or science-related themes, exploring them from the point of view of people connected with it (or people connected with people connected with it), and sometimes particular incidents/events that influenced in a sense, history (not just of science).

Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel

Source: https://dava-sobel-twf5.squarespace.com/549

And that brings me to the book by her I picked up next, A More Perfect Heaven. This one is all about Nicholas Copernicus and his theory that revolutionised our understanding of the universe, that is heliocentrism or that it is the sun that is the centre of our planetary system. This book doesn’t as such deal with how he came to his finding, but instead with the German mathematician Georg Joachim Rheticus who travelled to Poland, met Copernicus and somehow convinced him to publish his theory. The book is also different from Longitude in the sense that it is written in three parts, the second of which is in the form of a play in two acts that tries to imagine the time the Rheticus spent there, before taking us back into discussing the aftermath of this event, the publication of Copernicus’ book, its different versions, and impact. The play I think has also been published separately but I’m not sure whether this has anything in addition to what appears in the book.

 

 

The Bloomsbury ed (that I have) and a Close-up of Copernicus

Source for the Portrait: By Unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

sun stood still.jpg

This was another book that I really enjoyed so I decided to look up yet another of her books, published before this one, Galileo’s Daughter. This one is all about Galileo of course, but also about his relationship with his daughter, Maria Celeste who has taken the veil, based in the over a hundred surviving letters that Maria Celeste wrote to her father (which were published separately in Letters to Father, translated and annotated by Sobel). The book takes us between their two contrasting lives and the world that they lived in. This one I only acquired a copy of sometime ago and it is waiting to be read. Complete with pictures and diagrams, this is looking to be a fascinating read, as Longitude was, and as was A More Perfect Heaven.

Image source (Maria Celeste): Wellcome Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Her other books include The Planets (2006), which paints a portrait of the solar system using various sources, from mythology to history, fiction, and poetry. This covers all “nine” planets, before poor Pluto got the axe. And her latest work, The Glass Universe (2016),somewhat on the lines of Hidden Figures, tells of the women who worked in Harvard College Observatory between the late 1800s and early 1900s, taken on for their ability to work carefully, and at lower pay than their male counterparts.

 

While I haven’t read very many of Sobel’s books so far, I have really enjoyed the ones that I did read, and am  really looking forward to reading more. For any reader who enjoys history, history of science, or popular science, you are sure to enjoy one or more of her writings.

Have you read any of her books? Which one/ones and what did you think of them? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

 

Sources: Goodreads/ book blurbs

Dava Sobel’s site: http://www.davasobel.com/

 

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April Non-fiction Read: The Innocent Man

The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small TownThe Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town by John Grisham

My second Grisham for April, and also my non-fiction read for that month (Both the Grishams I read in April, in fact, were different from his usual, the YA Theodore Boone, and this, non-fiction). The Innocent Man I guess would be classified as ‘true crime’ and this was more or less my first foray into the genre (unless Arthur and George, and Conan Doyle’s version of it counts). This book deals with the conviction of and many years spent on death row by an innocent man, Ron Williamson, of the small town of Ada in Oklahoma. Williamson as a child is an excellent baseball player and seen by most as a future star but when his career doesn’t really take off, let alone him achieving any success, he turns to alcohol, drugs and women, not being able to really even hold a job very long. He faces serious charges on more than one occasion. But in the early 1980s, his life is turned upside down when he finds himself a suspect and the accused in murder of a young waitress close to his house, a woman he’s not even met. Along with him, his friend Denis Fritz, a school teacher also finds himself a co-accused (simply for being Williamson’s friend and having taken a trip out of town with him), and on the flimsiest of evidence, and the testimony of snitches who tell any story that will get them an advantage, Ron ends up on death row and Dennis with a life sentence. In prison, Ron is fighting not only for his freedom but also his sanity, for already disturbed before he has even landed in prison, his stay behind bars drives him deeper into depression and into losing his sanity. His is not the only such case as we see, there are many innocents languishing in prison, even on death row, some from the same town because of a mix of circumstances, from inadequate legal help and financial resources to the authorities themselves, who while not as such corrupt (as one would generally understand it), aren’t much concerned with a fair trial, but more so with securing the conviction of people they believe are guilty (not necessarily based on any evidence).

This book was for me a very disconcerting read. Just the thought, no, in fact proof that, not one or two but many many innocents end up in prison, even on death row as a result of botched up investigations, poor legal aid, and trials that are far from fair, is disturbing. That there are investigators who seem to begin with ‘gut feelings’ and then towards collecting evidence or so-called evidence that can convict the person they have these feelings about (conveniently overlooking what doesn’t help them) rather than thoroughly investigating the case, and even judges who aren’t as concerned with ensuring a fair trial as they ought to be, and all this in a system which supposedly proceeds on the presumption of innocence (while in fact perhaps it is in a sense a presumption of guilt in practice)―what can this do but shake one’s faith in the system (The blurb behind my copy puts it more aptly, ‘It is a book that will terrify anyone who believes in the presumption of innocence…’). Williamson was far from the ideal person, had made many mistakes, committed crimes even; he was a mess, but did he need to suffer as much as he did because of it? The journey is no easier for the victims’ families who believe the culprits have been caught, punished only to be told that these weren’t the ones after all. What are they to believe? What if a mistake was made again the second time? How do they know? And even if the suspect’s innocence is finally proved, does his or her life ever get back to ‘normal’ again? Not everyone will stop looking at them with suspicious eyes, what reparation can they get for a life that can never be ‘normal’ (besides all of what they’ve been put through)? While this book was about a case in the 1980s when aspects of evidence weren’t as strong or developed as today (particularly, no DNA testing), one can’t help but wonder that even this could well be botched up just as things back then, though may be in a different way. Reality can certainly be far scarier than a horror story.

The book, I thought, was well written―it certainly held my attention throughout (I have read reviews that this one is not as good as In Cold Blood but since I haven’t read that one I can make no comparisons), and yet, while I wanted to read on to see how things would turn out, there were times I just put it aside because I kept feeling so unsettled reading it. But then that was probably the point of bringing these cases before us, to show us how far from perfect this system can be and is, and how it can turn lives upside down for no reason whatsoever. For that alone, it is worth a read.

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