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I have spent my entire professional life writing. Beginning fresh out of college as a technical writer for IBM, I moved quickly into journalism in January 1970, just in time for the first Earth Day. My two all-time favorite full-time jobs were as science writer for the Cornell University News Bureau, where my beat included everything from astronomy to veterinary medicine, and staff reporter in the Science News department of The New York Times, covering psychology and psychiatry. My most unforgettable assignment for the Times required me to live twenty-five days as a research subject in a “chronophysiology” laboratory at Montefiore Hospital, where the boarded-up windows and specially trained technicians kept me from knowing whether it was day outside or night.
For twenty years I wrote freelance for numerous magazines, most notably Harvard Magazine, Omni, Science Digest, and Discover, as well as Audubon, Life, and The New Yorker. I saw my first total solar eclipse in 1991, as a columnist with Travel Holiday, and attended Space Camp for an article in the retirement magazine New Choices.
I was born June 15, 1947 and grew up right near the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden, so that I could walk to either by myself from an early age. My best academic credential is undoubtedly my diploma from the Bronx High School of Science (class of 1964). My home life provided excellent career preparation, since my mother had trained as a chemist, and no one in my family thought it odd or unusual for a girl to be interested in science. Both my parents loved to read, convincing me by their behavior that the best way to hold someone’s attention was with a book.
The publication of Longitude in 1995—and its unexpected success—turned me into a fulltime author of books. I greatly enjoy the more in-depth research required for book-length projects. Someone once said to me, “I would hate your job. It’s like writing one college term paper after another.” That’s exactly what it’s like, and also what I love about it. People may have the impression that book tours and public appearances are the highlights of an author’s life. I certainly enjoy those events, and am flattered both by my publishers’ willingness to send me on tour and readers’ eagerness to come meet me. But writing is really about sitting alone in a room, and the most exciting moments occur in that room, with no one else as witness, in the small moments of the day when the work is going well.
In recent years I have very much enjoyed teaching science writing, first at the University of Chicago in 2006, at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, in 2011, and from 2013 to 2016 at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts as the Joan Lieman Jacobson Visiting Nonfiction Writer.
Dava Sobel, a former New York Times science reporter, is the author of Longitude (Walker 1995 and 2005, Penguin 1996), Galileo’s Daughter (Walker 1999 and 2011, Penguin 2000), The Planets (Viking 2005, Penguin 2006), A More Perfect Heaven (Walker / Bloomsbury 20011 and 2012), And the Sun Stood Still (Bloomsbury, 2016) and The Glass Universe (Viking, 2016). She has also co-authored six books, including Is Anyone Out There? with astronomer Frank Drake.
Ms. Sobel received the 2001 Individual Public Service Award from the National Science Board “for fostering awareness of science and technology among broad segments of the general public.” Also in 2001, the Boston Museum of Science gave her its prestigious Bradford Washburn Award for her “outstanding contribution toward public understanding of science, appreciation of its fascination, and the vital roles it plays in all our lives.” In October 2004, in London, Ms. Sobel accepted the Harrison Medal from the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, in recognition of her contribution to increasing awareness of the science of horology by the general public, through her writing and lecturing. In 2008 the Astronomical Society of the Pacific presented her with its Klumpke-Roberts Award for “increasing the public understanding and appreciation of astronomy.” Her 2014 Cultural Award from Eduard Rhein Foundation in Germany commends her “for using her profound scientific knowledge and literary talent to combine facts with fiction by merging scientific adventures and human stories in order to give the history of science a human face.”
From January through March 2006, Ms. Sobel served as the Robert Vare Non-fiction Writer in Residence at the University of Chicago, where she taught a seminar in science writing while pursuing research for her stage play about 16th-century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, called “And the Sun Stood Still.” Her play was commissioned by Manhattan Theatre Club through the Alfred P. Sloan Initiative, and was also supported by a Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
In May 2011, as the Elizabeth Kirkpatrick Doenges Visiting Artist/Scholar, Ms. Sobel taught a course called “Writing Creatively About Science” at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia. From Fall 2013 to May 2016 she taught general science writing and also “The Climate of the Country: Writing about Weather and Climate Change” as the Joan Leiman Jacobson Visiting Nonfiction Writer at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Longitude went through twenty-nine hardcover printings before being reissued in October 2005 in a special tenth anniversary edition with a foreword by astronaut Neil Armstrong. Soon after its initial 1995 publication, the book was translated into two dozen foreign languages and became a national and international bestseller, much to Ms. Sobel’s surprise. It won several literary prizes, including the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and “Book of the Year” in England. Together with William J. H. Andrewes, who introduced her to the subject of longitude, Ms. Sobel co-authored The Illustrated Longitude (Walker 1998 and 2003).
She based her book Galileo’s Daughter on 124 surviving letters to Galileo from his eldest child. Ms. Sobel translated the letters from the original Italian and used them to elucidate the great scientist’s life work. Galileo’s Daughter won the 1999 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for science and technology, a 2000 Christopher Award, and was a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in biography. The paperback edition enjoyed five consecutive weeks as the #1 New York Times nonfiction bestseller.
A sequel, Letters to Father, containing the full text of Galileo’s daughter’s correspondence in both English and Italian, was published by Walker in 2001. An English-only edition became a Penguin “Classic” in 2003.
The PBS science program “NOVA” produced a television documentary called “Lost At Sea—The Search for Longitude,” based on Ms. Sobel’s book. Granada Films of England created a dramatic version of the story, “Longitude,” starring Jeremy Irons and Michael Gambon, which aired on A&E as four-hour made-for-TV movie. A two-hour “NOVA” documentary inspired by Galileo’s Daughter, called “Galileo’s Battle for the Heavens,” aired on public television in 2002 and won an Emmy in the category of historical programming.
Lecture engagements have taken Ms. Sobel to speak at the Smithsonian Institution, the Explorers’ Club, NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the New York Public Library, the Hayden Planetarium, the U. S. Naval Observatory, the Royal Institution (London), and the American Academy in Rome. She has been a frequent guest on NPR programs, including “All Things Considered,” “Fresh Air,” “Science Friday,” and “The Diane Rheem Show.”
A 1964 graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, Ms. Sobel attended Antioch College and the City College of New York before receiving her bachelor of arts degree from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1969. She holds honorary doctor of letters degrees from the University of Bath, in England, and Middlebury College, Vermont, both awarded in 2002, and also an honorary doctor of science degree from the University of Bern, Switzerland, 2015.
A play based on Galileo’s Daughter, written by Timberlake Wertenbaker and directed by Sir Peter Hall, premiered in Bath, England, in July 2004. In October 2005, Sir Arnold Wesker’s dramatization of Longitude, directed by Fiona Laird, enjoyed a successful limited engagement at the Greenwich Theatre near London—practically next door to the home of the Harrison sea clocks at the Royal Observatory.
Ms. Sobel’s own play, “And the Sun Stood Still,” was performed by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, Colorado, in March and April 2014, with grant support from the National Endowment for the Arts. A radio play version has been recorded and distributed by L. A. Theatre Works.
An occasional reviewer of books with science themes, Ms. Sobel edited the Ecco Press collection Best American Science Writing 2004. She has served as a judge for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction, the PEN / E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, and the Lewis Thomas Prize conferred by Rockefeller University on scientists who distinguish themselves as authors.