01 January 2008

Book Review: The Planets by Dava Sobel

The Planets From the days of the earliest astrologers to those of the latest satellite fly-bys, the planets that make up our solar system have fascinated mankind. Legends have been built up around them, assumptions (sometimes bizarre) have been made them, and gradually science has followed story to chart and label and analyse. Equal parts science, history, and personal essay, this is a tour from the sun to Pluto and beyond, through the science and mythology of each of the planets; and the educated professionals and rank amateurs who discovered and observed them.

I stumbled across this in the library and borrowed it because I thought I should read more science (seeing as I’m meant to dedicate myself to the stuff for the next forty-odd years). On the whole I’m glad I did. The personal-essay aspect adds a conversational tone that makes for easy reading and the history and mythology are interesting. (Oh, and there’s some good scientific facts in there, too.) I was particularly taken with the naming conventions for various solar system features, relying as they do on legend and literature. What took the book down a notch or several were the chapters on Mars and Uranus. The former was entirely a first-person narration by a lump of Martian rock in a museum, the latter a fictional letter from Caroline Herschel (sister and fellow-astronomer of William) to American astronomer Maria Marshall. Being so different from the style of all the other chapters, they jarred; and the formats struck me as affectations. Effective at conveying information, but still annoying. Though if you have an interest in science or history it is still well worth reading.

Rating: B-


raidergirl3 said...

First off, Happy New Year to you already! Still early here -getting ready for supper.

I read two of Sobel's books this year - Longitude and Galileo's Daughter, and she certainly has unique ways of getting info across. Both were good and well written, but not page turners.
I teach physics, so will definitely look into this one. It was printed before Pluto's demotion?
Thanks for the review.

Amat Libris said...

Happy New Year! I was printed before the demotion; it seemed strange seeing it described as a planet.

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776