Astronomer Dava Sobel on why the 2017 eclipse was the perfect time to pay tribute to the heroine of her new book

Ahead of her new BBC World Service series, the stargazer and best-selling author of Longitude shares her experiences of this year's American eclipse and recalls the key contribution of Anna Draper during the 1878 event

Astronomer Dava Sobel and friends looking at an eclipse

By Simon O’Hagan

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It’s hard to believe that there was anyone more excited about this week’s solar eclipse in the US — or more deserving of the chance to experience it — than Dava Sobel, the pioneering writer of popular astronomy who found literary fame with her huge bestseller Longitude back in the 1990s. 

Champion of all things planetary, passionate student of the universe and its countless wonders, Sobel made sure she booked herself a great spot to view a phenomenon that travelled a line between Oregon in the north-west of the US to South Carolina in the south-east.

That spot was Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and it did not disappoint. “The astronomer leading my group reserved a local golf course, where we spread out and relished all the phenomena,” Sobel told Radio Times this week. “The way the light changes in the final few minutes before totality is one of my favourite aspects of the experience. Shadows sharpen and colours shift.” 

But there was more to this choice of location than having an entire golf course set aside for eclipse-watching purposes. Nobel can take enormous credit for helping normalise the idea of women working in the scientific arena, and she was also there by way of honouring a 19th-century astronomer called Anna Draper. 

Back in 1878 there was an eclipse view-able from Wyoming that was as good as this week’s, and Anna Draper was there. But there was a problem. Her husband, Henry Draper, was also an astronomer, and someone had to carry out the task of timing the event — to the exact second — which meant missing out on actually viewing it. And who was that supremely self-sacrificial person who at the critical moment was obliged to look down and not up? Anna Draper, of course. She is the main character in Sobel’s most recent book, The Glass Universe, which tells the story of the “ladies of the Harvard Observatory”.

“I wanted to be where Mrs Draper had gone,” Sobel said, “and to see the ‘Great American Eclipse’ of 2017 ‘for her’, near the place she intentionally didn’t see the eclipse that traversed the western states in 1878. Rawlins, Wyoming Territory, where her group observed, is hours away from Jackson Hole in distance and a century-plus back in time, but I got as close as I could, emotionally.”

Female voices are to the fore in a new radio series that Sobel has made for the BBC World Service — The Compass: Stargazing, starting today [Wednesday] —  but she says she didn’t set out to present things in that way. It’s a reflection of the progress women have made in the scientific arena, but, Sobel says, there is still a long way to go.

“Girls can still be made to feel awkward or embarrassed about being interested in science, but there’s absolutely no reason for women to be kept out of the field. I’ve had women speak to me who were very young when they read Longitude and that it inspired their interest in astronomy, and that’s very gratifying.”   

Behind many a surprise bestseller is a tale of a long, painful struggle to get published, but in the case of Longitude the gestation period was longer and more painful than most. The book is all about 18th-century clockmaker John Harrison — “the true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time” — but when Sobel was writing it, “I’d have friends round and when I told them what I was working on, they would look away or just stare at the ground”.

The book began life as a putative magazine article. But could Sobel — who’d started out as a science writer on the New York Times — get a magazine to publish it? No, she couldn’t. Not for a whole year. She tried numerous outlets, “and they all said — boring, weird, esoteric”, Sobel recalls. Finally, Harvard Magazine accepted the piece, and almost overnight, Sobel had a publisher approach her wanting to turn it into a book. The rest, as they say, is astronomy. 

Longitude entered the stratosphere, sales boosted by a Channel 4 dramatisation in 2000 starring Michael Gambon and Jeremy Irons, and Sobel never looked back. She went on to more success with books that include Galileo’s Daughter and The Planets, and now comes the radio series — her first — which she describes as “a journey through history and star lore”.

A lifetime of passionate study of the universe has been poured into Stargazing, in which Sobel, now 70, takes her inspiration from the great 16th-century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, visits Hawaii and Edinburgh — where the James Webb Space Telescope, successor to Hubble, is under construction — and tells how “everything we see in the sky has the power to move our emotions”.  It’s a wonderful series, on which Sobel — a New Yorker — leaves a distinctive and beguiling vocal mark.

Sobel says she is hoping that the series will “help people feel a connection with the sky, pique their interest, get them looking up, and maybe think differently about space”. It is but a short step from there to thinking about our own planet, and Sobel’s dismay at the US government’s attitude to the climate-change question is clear.

“There is only one atmosphere and we all share it,” she says. “I think about our government’s stance on the Paris agreement, and our own environmental protection agency, and other worries too numerous to mention. I think people all over the world feel a sense of concern and understand that we need to listen to the scientists. This is not a hoax, not a scheme for scientists to make money.”

When I spoke to Sobel pre- the eclipse, she was at home on Long Island, and I pictured her with a variety of telescopes ranged around the premises, charting every movement in the night sky. But no — all Sobel uses to look at the stars is a pair of binoculars. “Invariably I am bad with equipment,” she explains. “And this is not a great area for viewing, because it’s near the water so the sky is misty, and I have to go on the roof. I am really a naked-eye amateur astronomer. But binoculars are quite useful, and remember that Galileo never had anything as good.”

If she wants to use a telescope, the next star party is never far off. Star party? Who knew? Amateur astronomers gather in a suitable spot — the grounds  of university, say — and out come the telescopes along with the food and drink. Sobel is a star party devotee — just another guest, it seems, and when it comes to astronomy, amateur is the way she refers to herself.

The eclipse over, the Cassini mission to Saturn in its final stages, thoughts turn to astronomy’s great what next, and the prospect of humans visiting Mars — the one other place in our solar system where it seems we might find life. “I wish I could go,” Sobel says. “Just for the novelty.” She’s been there in her imagination, and when it comes to the wonders of the universe, a lot of imaginations have been fired by Dava Sobel.

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The Compass: Stargazing begins on the BBC World Service at 1:30pm BST on Wednesday, repeated at 10:05pm