Bestselling author Dava Sobel's undergraduate major may have been theater history, but she's only now returning to her dramatic roots with September's A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos (Bloomsbury). While Sobel does tell the story of the Copernican revolution in her well-established narrative style, she also dramatizes a central part of the action in her first-ever play.
Two events where Sobel will promote the new title are scheduled today. An "Insight Stages: Sobel on Copernicus's Cosmos" talk will take place at 10:30 a.m. at the Midtown Stage, followed by an autographing at 11:30 a.m. at Bloomsbury's booth (3358).
Sobel established herself as a science journalist in the 1970s, most notably with the Science News division of the New York Times. The reporters covering science were tucked away behind the sports section, she recalls. "We used to say science was a wholly disowned subsidiary," she says, laughing. At the Times, she netted such assignments as interviewing B.F. Skinner for his obituary, and even participated in a monthlong lab experiment on circadian rhythms where subjects were prevented from knowing whether it was day or night. She then shifted her focus to the freelance life, writing for a slew of magazines, including Discover, the New Yorker, and Harvard Magazine.
An assignment for the last to cover a convention taking place on the Harvard campus—a pitch that had been turned down by all the other outlets she approached—turned into her first book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. Bloomsbury's George Gibson, now publishing director of Bloomsbury USA, a Harvard alumnus, read the piece in the magazine and called up Sobel to let her know he thought the piece was a book in the making.
"And it was a hit, which I'll continue to be surprised about for the rest of my life," says Sobel. "It really changed my life."
The topic for her next book, Galileo's Daughter, was an outgrowth of Longitude, and was then followed by The Planets, all cementing her position as one of the most popular science writers on this particular planet. The shift to full-time author was a welcome one. "I find book writing much more fun. You can take a topic and go deeply into it in a way you can't on a newspaper or magazine deadline," Sobel says.
She'd been long enchanted by the story of a young German mathematician who visited a much older Nicolaus Copernicus in 1539 and convinced him to publish the radical, extraordinary findings that led to the Copernican revolution. "Wow, that must have been some conversation," Sobel says. "This was something I'd wanted to do for 30 years—write a play about Copernicus."
The play, And the Sun Stood Still, is nested in the traditional narrative sections of A More Perfect Heaven. While a full production hasn't been arranged yet, the first official event of the book's launch will be a staged reading in East Hampton, N.Y., directed by Sobel's son, whose interest in the theater is what brought her back to the idea of the play in the first place. And, says Sobel, it's likely there will be a few actors at her other events to perform the play's text.
"I'm happy that Tom Stoppard didn't know this story," Sobel says. "Because I think he would have written about it and I would never have gotten the chance to."