Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A one-mile walk through the universe

The new edition of The Path: A One-mile Walk Through the Universe is now available, and a handsome thing it is, with a new foreward by Dava Sobel, whom I have never met.

Sobel established herself as a first-rate storyteller with her best-selling books Longitude and Galileo's Daughter. Her latest is The Planets, which many of you may have read.

I read The Planets in one eager gulp for the sheer beauty of the writing. Sobel knows her science, and she has a gift for choosing facts and anecdotes that let us engage with the familiar in original ways, but best of all is her ability to spin the dry chaff of scientific texts into the silk of poetry.

Sobel's tour of the solar system is a pleasing mix of science, space exploration, history of astronomy, and personal experience. A chapter is devoted to each of the planets (Uranus and Neptune share a chapter, and the Sun and Moon have chapters too). Each chapter has a theme -- Genesis, Mythology, Beauty, Geography, Sci-FI, etc. -- and sometimes a special mode of presentation. For example, the chapter on Uranus and Neptune is presented as a fictional and warmly affectionate letter from Caroline Herschel, the sister of the discoverer of Uranus William Herschel, to the 19th-century American astronomer Maria Mitchell.

Science would be a more welcome part of our lives if we had more writing like this. The planets, of course, are familiar to most of us, but Sobel's writerly gifts transform the way we think about the things we know. I pick a sentence at random: "The Martian landscape hosts a desert more dust than sand, and when its fine, smooth, iron-rich particles of rusted dust hang in the sky like a haze of smoke, they share their color with the air." I can almost taste that dust on my tongue.

Thanks, Dava.