Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Planets - Dava Sobel

Title: The Planets
Author: Dava Sobel
Year: 2005
Country: USA
Pages: 276
Rating: 4 out of 5

First sentence: My planet fetish began, as best I can recall, in third grade, at age eight--right around the time I learned that Earth had siblings in space, just as I had older brothers in high school and college.

I am a humanities person through and through. The only aspect of science that has ever held me interest is psychology, and astronomy usually causes my eyes to glaze over. However, when I saw raidergirl's recent review of The Planets, by Dava Sobel, and the book appeared in my library's bookmobile a week later, I knew I had to check it out.

And I am so glad I did. Dava writes in a style vastly different from most science books, turning a book about our solar system into a captivating story. She draws on astronomy's shared ancestry with astrology, geology and mathematics; each planet, along with the sun and moon, get their own chapter. Her approach is quite unique. For example, the chapter about Mars is written from the perspective of a Martian meteorite that was found in Antarctica. Some of the interesting tidbits I learned include:
  • Mercury experiences no real seasons, since it stands erect rather than leaning on a tilted axis;
  • Venus' dusk to dawn is the equivalent of two Earth months. Because of its rotation, the sun rises in the West and sets in the East;
  • Mars has the highest mountains in the solar system;
  • Jupiter is double the mass of all other planets combined, and is 300 times larger than Earth;
  • The Saturnian ring system spans a disc of 180,000 miles wide from one ring tip to the other. Yet the depth barely exceeds a 32-story building;
  • Uranus was discovered in 1781 by a novice astronomer with a homemade telescope in his garden. Two of the moons are named Oberon and Titania--the King and Queen of the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream;
  • Neptune was discovered by mathematicians, not astronomers, as a way to explain Uranus' irregular orbit;
  • Pluto (no longer classified as a planet) is smaller than the moon.
The Planets was published before Pluto was demoted as a planet, but Dava explains the controversy surrounding its planet status, and how its demotion can actually be viewed as a sign of scientific progress in understanding our Solar System. Her book is a great introduction into our amazing and fascinating solar system.

Tucked into the Notes section at the back of the book, was a comment I found absolutely hilarious in regards to Venus:
"Former President Jimmy Carter, while serving as governor of Georgia, reported Venus to the state police. During World War II, a squadron of B-29 pilots mistook the planet for a Japanese plane and tried to shoot it from the sky."
And some more quotes:
The Chaldeans called the planet Ishtar, the love goddess ascending the heavens, and to the Semitic Sumerians she was Nin-si-anna, "the Lady of the Defenses of Heaven." Her Persian name, Anahita, associated her with fruitfulness. The dual (dawn and dusk) nature of Venus cast her by turns as virgin or vamp to her worshipers. (p.55)

Venus, the wayward sister, preaches an important cautionary tale to careless humans, for her hostile environment proves how even small atmospheric effects can conspire over time to convert an earthly paradise into a hell-fire cauldron. Indeed, much current study of Venus aims to save humanity from itself by verifying, for example, the destruction that chlorine compounds wreak in high-altitude clouds. (p.59)
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1 comment:

Diana Raabe said...

This sounds appealing and it's on my own TBR read list. In fact, I think we actually have it around here somewhere.

Have you finished the challenge?