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During her long career as a reporter, science historian and best-selling author, Dava Sobel has ignited the love of the sciences in the minds and hearts of her myriad devotees worldwide. Enticing the reader to experience the human drama behind the world’s greatest discoveries, Sobel’s oeuvre elucidates the complexities of mathematics, astronomy, physics, horology—the science of time—and other disciplines. Her subject matter—the intellectual advancement of civilization—is informed by a spiritual sentience, inherent both in the depiction of her lonely and courageous protagonists, who often suffered in the cause of their beliefs, and in her lyrical descriptions of natural phenomena.

As the book and recent hit film “Hidden Figures” pays homage to the contributions of pioneering African American women scientists and mathematicians in America’s space program, Sobel’s ‘The Glass Universe,’ published in December, chronicles the history of the Harvard Observatory, where the tireless work of dozens of women “computers” in the 19th and 20th centuries greatly impacted the study of astronomy. Collecting data from images of the night sky photographed on glass plates, they made important discoveries about the stars, their composition and their distances from the earth. 

Several went on to become the first female Ph.Ds in their field; one was named Harvard’s first woman professor. Personal details, garnered from Sobel’s examination of diaries and letters, bring these heroines to life, revealing a picture of their brilliant accomplishments and perseverance, despite menial pay, long hours and grueling tasks—endured in the heat, snow and rain. “The Glass Universe” has been widely praised by both critics and writers including Geraldine Brooks, impressed by the book as “intellectual history at its finest” and by its author for “conveying complex information with ease and grace.”
For her extensively researched “A More Perfect Heaven,” Sobel focused on the life of 16th century Polish astronomer and physician Nicolaus Copernicus, who also provided the inspiration for her first play, “The Sun Stood Still.” Commissioned by the Manhattan Theatre Club and staged in Denver, New York and Los Angeles, its script imaginatively treated the events that led to Copernicus’ decision to publish his groundbreaking theory of the cosmos, in which he asserted that the planets rotated, not around the earth as was believed, but the sun. Now published in more than 28 languages, “Longitude” is another of Sobel’s books to be dramatized, in theaters and on English television. The story of 18th century clockmaker John Harrison’s life and arduous quest to perfect the marine chronometer, a device to pinpoint a ship’s location at sea, starred Jeremy Irons and Michael Gambon.

Among numerous others, the award that Sobel received from Germany’s Rhein Foundation in 2014 was given to honor her “scientific knowledge and literary talent” and “for giving the history of science a human face”. A sense of wonder continues to characterize both her books and her own sensibility. Frequently travelling long distances to experience solar eclipses, she has noted:

… at the moment of totality the sky darkens because the moon is in front of the sun, so it blocks [its} brightest light. And the corona flares out around the moon, and it’s like platinum streamers, iridescent. And ropes of burning hydrogen can come up into that silver part from the black moon in bright red, and the colour of the sky goes twilight, and you can see the planets come out. Whichever planets are near the sun will suddenly appear in the daytime. And the temperature drops. it’s the closest thing to witnessing a miracle.

​Cheryl Kempler
 is an art and music specialist who works in the B’nai B’rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, Click Here