An Interview with Dava Sobel


Best-selling author Dava Sobel recently sat down with Christopher Cokinos to discuss her new role as founding poetry editor of “Meter,” a trail-blazing column in Scientific American. She’s taken this on even as she works on a new book about Marie Curie and the women researchers she recruited and supervised in her lab. Sobel, whose books include Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter and The Glass Universe, believes in the power of poetry to bridge the sciences and the arts. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Christopher Cokinos: Can you talk a little bit about the magazine itself, a little bit about its history—and when and why it was originally publishing poetry.

Dava Sobel: I am a little nervous about posing as a representative of the magazine. I am really a wholly dis-owned subsidiary, or independent contractor…The magazine was begun by Rufus Porter, who was a very unusual character, a prolific inventor and painter. The magazine began in 1845. And so [the first issue] was four pages and in those four pages, there were two poems. And he said in his introductory message about the magazine that it would include poetry.

But, partly because he did so many things, I guess, he didn't keep up the magazine. He sold it. The new owners apparently had a different vision. Okay, that was the end of the poetry. Its inclusion had everything to do with Rufus Porter's unusually broad mindset. And the poetry he chose didn't have to be about science.

But the magazine did go on to run a couple of poems in the 1960s.

Christopher Cokinos: That was it until you came along to suggest the poetry feature that Scientific American now runs under the title “Meter,” devoting a page each issue to a poem. How did it come to be?

Dava Sobel: I’ve listened to The Writer’s Almanac every morning for years. One day in August of 2019, Garrison Keillor mentioned that it was the anniversary of Scientific American’s first issue, and that the magazine was the oldest continuously published periodical in the United States. And it had included poetry. Now I've been reading Scientific American since high school. But I missed those poems or I forgot about them. There was also a very good essay maybe in the 1980s about science and poetry that ran just as an essay in the magazine.

But that morning I was electrified by hearing about the early interest in poetry. I thought I wonder if they would do it again…I thought, well, I’ll write to Clara Moskowitz since she’s the only one I know there. She got back immediately and thought it was a great idea, but she said it was way above her pay grade. Next thing I knew I was invited to a meeting at the magazine office in Manhattan, and I really prepared. So my vision for this column was to use existing poetry, because there was a lot, as you know, I mean there is a wealth of material. I went into the meeting thinking I was going to have to sell them on the idea.

But they had already bought into it. They were enthusiastic. Curtis Brainard , who is the managing editor, came up with the title “Meter.” I thought that was brilliant.

Christopher Cokinos: That was one of my questions…

Dava Sobel: So when I started talking about how there would be a poem and an accompanying essay to explain the science, he said, “No, no, we don't want an essay. We just want the poetry. And we want all new poetry.” Suddenly it was a completely different thing. And now it was September [2019], and they were saying that this would be a good feature to introduce for the 175th anniversary. I hadn't thought about that at all, but, of course, when you're a magazine editor you have to be thinking in those terms. They’d been wanting a new feature to introduce but hadn't found one, and now this this was going to be it.

So that was exciting and, of course, they needed to have the first poem in just a few weeks because the column would be illustrated and they'd need time to figure all that out--a half page or full page, they weren't sure yet. January 2020 was going to be the first installment.

With that short a time the only thing I could think of doing was to call Diane Ackerman and ask her to write something.

Christopher Cokinos: She's a relatively unknown writer, but give her a shot, right?

Dava Sobel: I don't think they realized what good friends we were, and that I actually could just call her up. She loved the idea. She’d been at work for several years on a novel about a 17th century woman, a scientific illustrator and naturalist named Maria Sibylla Merian. I asked her if she'd ever written a poem about Maria and she had not. And that's what we wound up with -- this beautiful poem imagining how Maria looked at the objects that she illustrated. Everybody was thrilled.

Christopher Cokinos: What happened next?

Dava Sobel: Then I had to be really finding poets. I’ve been collecting poetry about science for decades, so I knew the names of numerous people who did that kind of work and I just started writing to them on their websites. The aim was that the poems would really be about science. Once the column appeared, people noticed it. Poets were pretty quick to get in touch with the magazine or me. there were no instructions anywhere…I mean, I'm easily found.

Christopher Cokinos:  Once poets start talking among themselves, they find out very quickly where to send things.

Dava Sobel: There was a great hunger there. That's when I really started to get a rush of submissions, and it scared me because I thought, “Well, this could just take over my life.” Even now there are some people who send things, though I don't think they've looked at the page. Now, sometimes, if I really like the work-- if I see that, boy, this is somebody I'd like to read—I just point out that they're really moving away from the science too quickly. Would they consider settling in and trying to keep the poem focused on science? And I've had some wonderfully gratifying outcomes.

Christopher Cokinos: Why the focus on having the poets really pay attention to the science itself?

Dava Sobel: Well, first of all, it’s Scientific American. It had better be about science, with a strong science focus. That communication is very important.

Many scientists have not had an opportunity to read much poetry. And even some of the staff at the magazine: One person said at the outset, “I'm afraid of poetry. It makes me feel stupid.” This is somebody with a breadth of understanding about science, but in the face of poetry, well, you can understand that.

I'll go back again to my time as science writer in the Cornell News bureau. When Carl Sagan was already famous but not hugely famous in the way he became, Diane [Ackerman] told him she wanted to write a series of poems about the solar system, so he cleared an hour a day to talk to her about that. The idea captivated him. He could not refuse.

Numerous scientists are also poets. It's a really interesting, weird meeting place. It's just full of surprises.

Christopher Cokinos: I always think of that line from Robert Frost’s sonnet “Mowing”: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” The facts of the universe are astounding, and you can stay with that, so it seems like that's the ethos here as well.

Dava Sobel: Yes, I mean, I'm a science writer! How else? I'm constantly surprised that I also get a lot of submissions that I really don't like because they’re either inappropriate or poorly crafted. If you had told me at the outset that most of my time would be spent in writing rejection letters I would have been so surprised. But I love the column. I write two responses per day. The tide has really been stemmed now.

Christopher Cokinos: So you are finding balance.

Dava Sobel: I’m thrilled that the magazine wants to do it. They're generous to the poets. And I think the artwork has really been stellar. I think “Meter” is the most attractive page in the magazine.

Christopher Cokinos: Can this work help in the efforts against scientific illiteracy?

Dava Sobel: I have to say I think not at all because nobody who's not interested in science picks up Scientific American.

Christopher Cokinos: Yes, maybe that is an unfair challenge. But this fear of science has to be handled with all the tools in the shed.

Dava Sobel: Everything we have, yes, we need to use because the times are just terrifying.

Christopher Cokinos: Are there any new developments for the “Meter” poetry feature?

Dava Sobel: To introduce at least one column per year with poetry that is humorous. And a page of poems that were written specifically for children.

Christopher Cokinos: I love that. I can imagine some readers of Scientific American may take those poems to their kids and to their schools and so maybe that does ripple out into the culture a little bit.

Dava Sobel: The idea for poems for children—this came from a middle school librarian who wrote to me because she'd seen the column. She just wanted to send me some of the things she had written for or about her students and I thought that was so great. If every middle school had a librarian like that imagine what the world would be like.

Upcoming poetry in “Meter” will include a poem by a Nobel Prize winning chemist, an ode to archaeology, a visual poem in which the words are layered on a star map on top of a photograph, and a selection of lunar and planetary haiku that double as scientific abstracts.

Christopher Cokinos is the co-editor of the anthology Beyond Earth's Edge: The Poetry of Spaceflight and author of three books of literary nonfiction: Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished BirdsThe Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars; andBodies, of the Holocene. In 2016, the University of Arizona Press published his co-edited anthology, The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide, which won a Southwest Book of the Year award. Cokinos’s poetry collection, The Underneath, was awarded the New American Press Poetry Prize.