Remembering why the planets are so cool

Following up on my review of Galileo’s Daughter, I just finished reading another Dava Sobel book, The Planets. I really like Sobel’s writing, because it’s clear that she really loves both science and history, and her enjoyment of her chosen subject matter communicates itself well and infects the reader, which has always been one of my personal hallmarks of a good teacher, formal or informal. (Actually, that’s one of the things that made me start this blog; I’d much rather learn about new things from people who are enthusiastic about said things than feel like I have to take a class or slog through a textbook on the subject.)

The Planets starts out, quite fittingly, with Sobel’s own recollections of learning about the Solar System as a child in school. Her memories of how simply neat the idea of other planets out there, circling around the sun along with the Earth, will probably resonate with the majority of her readers. Other early and largely undetailed scientific fascinations that seemed common to most of my peers were volcanoes, constellations, and whales. She points out that the planets were aided in their fascination-worthiness by the fact that you could memorize their names and relative locations in less than an hour, as opposed to countries or states. Or constellations, for that matter, now that I think about it.

That initial establishment of rapport through remembered childhood wonder sets the stage for the rest of the book. She leads the reader through each of the 9* planets, plus the Sun and Earth’s Moon. Above all, her perspective is that of, not hard science and astronomy, but scientific history and (accurate) popular science. While some more hardcore astronomy enthusiasts would no doubt wish for greater detail, for the casual, broad-ranging reader, she hits the high points of relevant history and current science for each celestial body, moving the story (and there is clearly a story in the history of each) right along.

For some of the planets, she uses more unique rhetorical devices, such as telling Mars’s story in the voice of the Mars rock meteorite found in the Antarctic ice fields. Neptune and Uranus get one chapter together, emphasizing their interestingly intertwined history, of which I was previously unaware. In addition, the beginning of the chapter is told in the voice of the sister and dedicated assistant of Sir William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus.

Even for the chapters that are told in more conventional form, though, often have fascinating themes. Saturn’s chapter has a musical theme, which highlights how influential that planet in particular, and the heavens in general, have been on music, and how linked astronomy and music have been. Did you know that Johannes Kepler gave each of the planets a musical theme? Jupiter’s chapter has an astrological theme, since that planet has a nearly 12-year orbit, and thus governs the change of the Chinese zodiac calendar year as it moves from one zodiac constellation to another. Sobel sites the effect of Jupiter in Galileo’s own natal horoscope, accurately predicting his life’s achievements, and also the effect Jupiter had on the horoscope of the Galileo space probe, which circled Jupiter for seven years, yet suffered the many communication difficulties its horoscope predicted. As I said, she clearly had a lot of fun with this topic.

She ends the book with an interesting look at how the future of astronomy has changed since the heyday of the initial planetary discoveries. No more are we in an era of brilliant individuals; we have now entered the era of international cooperation and collaborative projects, as we forge further out into space to discover more new things, and also find ourselves with a greater wealth of information about the planets we already know that needs to be understood and analyzed. There is still a lot to learn. Maybe there will be another book from Sobel about it. As it is, in this one, she helps us remember why the planets seemed so cool when we were kids, and then shows us why they should still be cool to all adults.**

*Yes, Pluto still makes an appearance as a planet, since that is what it was known as for so much of our lives. However, it allows Sobel to “teach the controversy” and explain how, in fact, Pluto was the first in an exciting new band of Solar System objects, the Kuiper Belt Objects, so really, we should still love Pluto for being a herald of the next wave of Solar System discovery.

**Interestingly, I have found that space exploration is not necessarily as inherently fascinating to people from other countries. My Korean college students, having grown up largely in a country without a space program, needed a lot of preparation to find a lesson based on a book about the “what ifs” of moving to a new planet, which I wasn’t expecting. Maybe if I’d had this book to have them read excerpts from, it’d have been easier. As it was, I settled for showing them Apollo 13 as an opening activity, which at least gives a good view of where the modern American space fascination comes from. I wonder if this attitude will become more worldwide in the new era Sobel describes, of international space cooperation.

-posted by Dana

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2 Responses to Remembering why the planets are so cool

  1. kidsilkhaze says:

    I really liked Sobol’s Longitude. Have you read it? I can hook you up. I’ll have to look at her other work…

  2. Dana says:

    My mother is currently in possession of the copy we bought during a joint book shopping trip. I’m waiting for her to be done with it, so I can steal it, read it, and review it. I have to complete the Sobel triple-play, after all.

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