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