Click on the player below to listen to Dava Sobel's talk or read City Weekend's live blog reporting on "Paper Planets" at the Shanghai International Book Festival click here to save the mp3 to your computer.
Audio courtesy of the Glamour Bar. Sound recording by Tom Lee Pettersen at Meta Music Media at SILF.
4:19 | You say astrology, I say astronomy It's interesting to hear the range of the audience's questions. One young woman asks about planetary alignment and the potential impact on human behavior, another asks about sun spots or bursts. It's clear that Ms. Sobel is more interested, but respectful nonetheless for each, in answering questions regarding science. While she says that Capernicus' early charts on the matters were interesting, she alludes to the social influence at play in that some of the planets (like Pluto) were not even discovered then, so could not have exerted much influence. Interesting point.
4:17 | The Planet Definition Committee
No more Pluto? No one told us. Roused by a question in the audience, the fact that Pluto is actually no longer classified as a planet was finally revealed. Sobel explains that planet is an ancient Greek word which described how some objects in the heavens seemed to move against the fixed backdrop of the stars. As astronomy evolved, so too did the need to get more specific with such definitions. And, as it would turn out, hundreds of objects have been discovered in the orbit of Pluto, making people think that Pluto was actually originally misclassified and may not be the last major planet but beginning of a vast field of bodies resemblind something more like the asteroid belt. As a member of the Planet Definition Committee (yes, you read that right), they tried to broaden the definition to keep Pluto as a planet, taking its emotional and cultural value to heart, however that definition was overruled in place of one that favored a solitary orbit not shared with any other bodies. There you have it. Bye bye Pluto.
4:08 | How did you get interested in astronomy? A young woman asks a question about Carl Sagan again and Ms. Sobel reveals that she's interviewed several scientists and that they often all mention Sagan's program, Cosmos. "The impact of that program was and still is amazing", says Ms. Sobel. "People are looking for the next Carl Sagan. I think we've found one in Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Hayden Planetarium. It would be great if we got another Carl Sagan or another scientist like him but in another field."
4:00 | Questions from the audience The talk ends quickly, and Dr. Knight opens up the floor to questions. Unlike Mr. French's last talk, the first question is quickly brought up. A British man in the audience asks what Ms. Sobel thinks about the debate between religion and science. She fields the question well and gives a smart, erudite response quoting Galileo, "Galileo is the symbol in the fight between science and religion. I think that Galileo's principles that he put forward are right, that religion and science are separate realms. I like what Galileo says, 'The bible is a book about how to go to heaven, not about how the heavens go'. When one side tells the other side how to go, it's always a dismal failure. I think they should keep their separate sides. It’s more than 400 years later and we’re still trying to settle the question."
3:59 | Extraterrestrial Life
The conversation turns from a discussion strictly about Longitude to a brief conversational tangent on life beyond Earth. Ms. Sobel says, "Some people are afraid that if we broadcast a strong enough signal, we'll be found. We're not very friendly to other civilizations, why should we expect extraterrestrials to be benevolent?"
3:56 | Total Eclipse of the Heart What the heck is an "eclipse chaser"? Is that like a tornado chaser? Apparently there are people who travel to the ends of the earth and all its isolated nooks and crannies to capture the perfect eclipse, though not always with the perfect surroundings. On a trip to the Galapagos to watch an eclipse, Sobel and other scientists set out on a ship that was never intended for open ocean travel. Falling TVs, slamming doors, and rampant seasickness took out most, but Sobel managed to weather the tide and capture her eclipse.
3:50 | Longitude is in Chinese The audience applauds as Ms. Sobel introduces the second Chinese translator for her book and his family. Dr. Knight asks, "So it's actually the first time it's been translated into Chinese". Ms. Sobel says "no, it was translated when it first came out, but it's been done really well now."
3:44 | We love Carl Sagan too! In a response to a question by Dr. Knight about communication and science, Ms. Sobel reveals that she always looked up to and admired author Carl Sagan, "Carl Sagan did a lot of public education, lecture and public writing. he always tried to encourage other scientists 10% of their time giving back to a non technical audience. It's a great idea, something like jury duty, where you say 'this is for the greater good'".
3:43 | Breakthroughs Are scientific breakthroughs made more quickly now than in Harrison's day? Sobel's frank answer is a bit contrary to what some may think. "Great breakthroughs, I don’t know.” The little breakthroughs perhaps because of the number of people given the opportunity to practice and study science today. The truly great breakthroughs require something more than just equipment and opportunity.
3:41 | Intellectual Trade and Property Rights, Oh My!
Sobel reads another passage from her book about the fierce competitive rivalry between John Harrison and the Reverend Masculin in their quest to solve the longitude problem. When Harrison needed to prove his success in solving the problem, he had to turn his four clock prototypes, the timekeepers, over to the British Parliament. The process was overseen by Masculin whose men "accidentally" damaged one of the timepieces. The segment sparks the question of intellectual property rights, a touchy issue yet largely unpoliced in China at the moment as was the case in Harrison's time. Harrison himself was quite cautious but to a large extent people of the times, according to Sobel, didn't really care that a scientist espouse the findings / work of others.
3:36 | Money Talks, Science Walks In response to Dr. Knight's question as to whether or not governments today currently offer strong enough incentives for scientists to find such monumental solutions to serious problems, Sobel responds, "Not really. The Nobel prize is sort of like this and scientists hope to get one but it’s different to offer a real monetary incentive. More and more, private money will be paying for innovative research." (Think the Gates' Foundation for HIV/AIDS research. Of course, issues tied up in this include research biases in privately funded studies, accessibility, etc.
3:27 | The sailors discovered to their horror...
Ms. Sobel reads aloud a passage from her book, “Longitude” the story of The Shipwreck of Sir Cloudesley Shovell, where a British admiral having lost course due to the lack of longitude bearings, ran aground four of five Britain’s prized warships returning from foreign service. The crowd leans in as Ms. Sobel describes the admiral’s dastardly decision to hang a sailor who appealed to the admiral to hear his bearing estimations. It gets better. The admiral apparently was one of two survivors of the wreck, however, laying there washed up on the shore, a young woman murdered him for the emerald ring he proudly wore upon his finger. It’s a crowd pleaser and Dr. Knight comments that the news helped push through the Longitude Act by British Parliament to discover a scientific method of charting longitude and latitude. The act offered a monetary reward of what would be equivalent to USD 12 million to the scientist that solved the longitude problem.
3:26 | It's all in the powder Previous methods for determining longitude included one stand-out oddity. The powder of sympathy was a method applied to treating serious wounds by dusting not the wound, but rather the weapon responsible OR a piece of the bandage in proximity to the wound. The powder was applied to the longitude problem by ships taking a wounded dog with them to sea. A trusted shipmate would remain on shore and dip a piece of the dog's bandage in the powder each day at noon. The dog, it was believed, would undoubtedly yelp in pain when this was done, alerting the crew that it was noon in London. You can read Sobel's explanation of this process here.
3:24 | What the heck is Longitude anyway? Sobel's historical fiction centers around her hero, John Harrison, the man who solved the longitude problem. In a nutshell, ships at sea had difficulty telling their location / longitude. The gravity of this navigational problem resulted in the deaths of hundreds at seas. Being able to calculate it hinges on being able to tell the time in two different places at once.
3:23 | Paper planets? Now many guests seem to shift in their seats and seek out a new perspective for enjoying today's talks. It's not some aloof discussion about the metaphysics of life or a chance to indulge in quaint notions of astrology or astronomy, but rather a sincere interview about Ms. Sobel's work with Longitude.
3:20 | Too many scientists As Ms. Sobel is responding to the previous question, her necklace gets in the way of the microphone, accompanied by the requisite bumping and scratching sounds of a microphone gone bad. As the sound technician rushes to help her, Sobel lets a fundamental truth slip: "The more scientists there are in the room the more technical problems you have!"
3:19 | Becoming an author Responding to Dr. Knight's softball question about how Ms. Sobel became an author, Ms. Sobel replies, "I've been doing this for 30 plus years, mostly as a journalist and science reporter. But thanks to "Longitude", I've gotten to be a non-fiction book writer. Which is much more fun, because you can go into subjects at great depth and with more leisure.
3:10 | We're seeing stars As science nuts, we're pretty excited about this talk. Two female scientists, Dava Sobel and Dr. Julia Knights, sit down on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, are about to hold a candid interview on "the many places that 'come to Earth': in mythology, astrology, music, and science fiction". Ms. Dava Sobel is a former New York Times science reporter and Dr. Julia Knights, of the British Consulate, is head of the British Council for Science and Innovation here in Shanghai. Michelle says, "other consulates should take note".