Diane Ackerman and Dava Sobel: Women Who Changed the World

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The 2018 Nantucket Book Festival is delighted to welcome two of the country’s outstanding science writers, Diane Ackerman and Dava Sobel.  Ms. Ackerman is a prolific naturalist author and poet of over two dozen award-winning books. Ms. Sobel is likewise an author of many fascinating, award-winning books such as Galileo’s Daughter and her most recent work, The Glass Universe.

Festival goers were thoroughly engaged by Ms. Ackerman’s presentation two years ago. How much more rewarding will it be as Ms. Ackerman interviews Ms. Sobel about her latest work on Harvard Observatory’s amazing cadre of 19th century female astronomers?  Called “Pickering’s harem”, the women from all walks of life analyzed the stars in daylight on glass photographic plates. No nighttime observatory work was required. Their discoveries were astonishing.


Dava Sobel and Diane Ackerman

I wonder if this June we will hear contrasts between the skyward focus of Ms. Sobel and the seas and land focus of Ms. Ackerman? The future of our diminishing species described in Ms. Ackerman’s works, as contrasted to the vast discoveries of the universe? The art of using a person’s life (lives)  to teach science, at the same time building characters that emote, relate and pull us into the works? I think of Sobel's Galileo’s Daughter and Ackerman's The Zookeeper’s Wife doing just that. When Germany invaded Poland in September, 1939, life changed forever at the Warsaw Zoo for zookeeper Jan Zabinski,  his wife Antonina and son.  Drawing from Antonina’s diary, Diane Ackerman weaves a narrative in The Zookeeper's Wife's that revolves around Antonina's courageous, life-saving work.  Likewise, Dava Sobel was as surprised as anyone to learn that Galileo had fathered two daughters -- both nuns -- and went in search of the family’s complicated, multi-dimensional history.

One often has to remind oneself that this is non-fiction. Fascinating achievement, heroism and real stories pull us into these plots like great fiction books.  There are times of heartbreak, tragedy, and comedy for those detailed within. Yet while peeking into their personalities, we learn through Ms. Sobel about Gaileo’s reasoning and confidence that the earth revolves around the sun. Working with Ackerman’s knowledge of nature, we come to know Antonina as a lover of all things living, a student of nature whose perspective and caring extends to the zoo’s animals (crickets, pigs and more raised in her villa) and most importantly, the persecuted Jews in the neighboring Warsaw Ghetto.  The reality of the Polish Resistance efforts reminds us of the dangers lurking within yards of the Warsaw Zoo.

The weekend of June 15-17th will soon be upon us.  Don't miss Dava Sobel in conversation wtih Diane Ackerman - their conversation is sure to be brilliant!

- by Chris Vineis