March 2, 2006

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The Planets, by Dava Sobel (Viking Books, 2005, 231 pages plus extras)

Dava Sobel had me at hello but lost me somewhere around Neptune in The Planets, a leisurely pondering of our solar system.

Sobel’s informative mind-wandering reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s conversational lectures for laypeople in his early books On Chemistry, On Physics and On Numbers. She draws on astrology, the Bible and ancient mythology to complement modern astronomy; she considers the physics of the planets but also our relationships with them and what stories we’ve attached to each one.

The Planets is not a complete guide but a small sojourn with various thoughts Dava Sobel happens to have had regarding each planet.

The first few chapters – Mercury, Venus, Earth, our moon – prodded me to remember of the true wonder of those little dots in the sky. Then the chapter on Mars, in which Sobel writes from the point of view of a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica (sounds silly at first, but it works), gave me an even wider perspective. At Jupiter, Sobel gets astrological, asserting rather romantically that both Galileo the man and Galileo the space probe fit their horoscopes, and at Saturn she writes dreamily, if not terribly excitingly, about those glorious rings.

But at Uranus and Neptune, Sobel pretends she is Caroline Herschel writing to Maria Mitchell – they were the only two women in the world who had discovered comets – in 1847. Only in the endnotes does she clarify this, but what’s worse is that the letter feels like Dava Sobel trying to teach her readers about planets and not like a letter between friends. The awkward format distracted me from the material.

After that comes Pluto and some discussion of the hundreds of other orbiting bodies recently found in its neighborhood – a chapter I found neither here nor there, as I was still turned off by the Neptune-and-Uranus fiasco.

The Planets is short but you can spend as long as you want on a sentence like “Ring particles within the Cassini Division travel twice around Saturn to Mimas’s once, and so they repeatedly overtake the slower-moving moon at precisely the same two points in their orbit” – if that doesn’t tax your powers of imagination, you’re not trying. And it fairly well accomplishes Sobel’s stated goal of helping us “befriend the planets.” It gets flowery at times, but in return gives us things to wonder at: the Earth’s peppercorn size relative to the sun’s bowling ball size; the image of Jupiter’s liquid metallic hydrogen interior, “opaque, metallic, molten and electric.” That’s why you read a book like this.

B

—Lisa Parsons

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