Dava Sobel's Journey to 'The Planets'

Venus is the planet most like Hell, while Mars holds the most promise as second Earth. The Planets, by former New York Times science reporter Dava Sobel, explores the myths — and science — behind the celestial bodies in our solar system.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News in Washington, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

If you look to the western sky at twilight this time of year, Venus appears on the horizon as bright as a landing light of a jumbo jet. Of all the planets discovered so far in our solar system, Venus reflects the most sunlight to Earth. Venus is a morning star for part of the year, and was once known to the ancients as Ishtar. These facts and much else, both mythical and geological, about Venus and its fellow planets are available in Dava Sobel's new book, "The Planets." Sobel is a former science reporter for The New York Times and author of the best-sellers, "Longitude" and "Galileo's Daughter," and she joins us from member station WLIU in Southampton, New York.

Welcome to the program, Dava.

Ms. DAVA SOBEL (Author, "The Planets"): Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

HANSEN: For many of us in grade school, we were taught about the solar system. It was that model that had the sun in the middle and it was being circled by planets of different size and color. I think I actually made a model once of flour and water.

Ms. SOBEL: I did, too.

HANSEN: Did you really? It...

Ms. SOBEL: I did.

HANSEN: What did yours look like?

Ms. SOBEL: Terrible. I have no artistic talent. But that was when I fell in love with the planets.

HANSEN: Well, tell a little bit--because you give a fascinating footnote about, if one were to make a scale model of the solar system using the bowling ball as the sun, what would Earth be?

Ms. SOBEL: In Guy Otwell's model, if the sun is a bowling ball, the Earth is a peppercorn and it's 78 feet away.

HANSEN: From the bowling ball?

Ms. SOBEL: From the bowling ball. So that gives you some idea of scale, which is why those shoe box dioramas never quite give you the feeling of space.

HANSEN: And was it that science project that eventually got you on this road that led to this book about the planets?

Ms. SOBEL: I think I was on the road even before that. I think I chose that project because I just liked planets the way some kids like dinosaurs and other kids like bugs.

HANSEN: What was the occasion from writing "The Planets"?

Ms. SOBEL: It was this old interest, and it was also sparked by a wonderful question my agent had asked me, which was: `What is the difference between the solar system and the galaxy and between the galaxy and the universe?' And I realized that despite the fact that he's a brilliant person and extremely well educated, he had no clue about what was up. And he asked me if I would write a book for him because he wanted to know about the planets, but he felt that a lot of existing books required too much prior knowledge or they talked down to him. And he wanted something that would be at his level, but also recognize his ignorance of the subject.

HANSEN: You do tell lots of different stories about all of the planets. Let's talk about two in particular, Mars and Venus. First, Venus. Take us back a few millennia, I guess. What kind of pull did Venus have on the ancient celestial explorers?

Ms. SOBEL: Venus is so bright when it's in the sky you really cannot help but notice it, especially if you're not living in a major metropolitan area with lots of light pollution. And many ideas came up about Venus, about what it was--morning star, evening star. For a while, those were considered two separate bodies until it was realized that it was just the same one changing its position relative to the sun over time.

HANSEN: What are your favorite myths about Venus? I mean, there are so many of them. And having chosen one, could you give us the scientific basis for it?

Ms. SOBEL: Well, I really love the idea that it was covered with lush swamps that had soda water. And this was not all that long ago. This was in the 1950s when people really expected some kind of tropical paradise. But the truth about Venus is that it is as close to hell as exists in the solar system. It's a planet with a surface temperature of about 900 degrees and the clouds are made of sulfuric acid, and it would be utterly impossible for any human to spend even a fraction of a second anywhere near Venus.

HANSEN: Let's journey over to the red planet and your approach is unique. You write about Mars from the perspective of a rock. Explain how that came about.

Ms. SOBEL: Yes, an odd choice.

HANSEN: Yeah.

Ms. SOBEL: Mars is the science-fiction planet. There's been more science fiction written about Mars than any of the others, probably because it's close and it is pretty much like Earth; it has seasons, it has day and night and we've had a fixation about life on Mars for centuries.

So I wanted to tell the story of Mars in the tone of a science-fiction tale. And I chose for my narrator the famous Mars rock that made headlines in 1996, because scientists who found it in Antarctica realized that it had come all the way here from Mars by itself without benefit of an astronaut's going and collecting it. And there were little trapped bubbles of gas in this rock that were exactly like the martian atmosphere. But also in this rock were what looked like fossil imprints of some sort of primitive life form, and that got people really exercised.

Today, there's considerable doubt that those forms really represent some early life form on Mars, but there are some scientists who still believe that it is evidence and that more evidence will be found.

HANSEN: What myths and theories--I mean, even the whole practice of astrology--I mean, are these things going to need to be revised as other planets are being discovered and more is learned about Earth and its relationship to the rest of the solar system?

Ms. SOBEL: Well, astrology is an interesting case, and as a science writer, I'm technically not allowed to talk about it. I'm supposed to say it's a lot of nonsense, and if you want to know your true connection to the planets and the stars, you should study astronomy and realize that you are made of stardust, which is, of course, true.

But I don't know a single person who doesn't know his astrological sign, and it seemed to me that that was another legitimate road to the planets. If you were talking to people who don't know about astronomy, they're likely to know something about astrology. So if you can capture their interest that way, I think that's fair to do. And a lot of the great astronomers in history--Galileo, Kepler--they were all trained in astrology. They knew how to cast horoscopes and they had to cast them for the rulers of their day.

HANSEN: Dava Sobel wrote "The Planets," published by Viking. For an excerpt, go to our Web site, npr.org. Dava Sobel joined us from member station WLIU in Southampton, New York.

Dava, thank you so much.

Ms. SOBEL: Oh, thank you.

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