Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Planets -- Book Review


This is my original draft. The edited review was published in Barron's on Nov. 7, 2005.

The Planets
, By Dava Sobel, $24.95, 288 Pages, Viking Adult, New York, ISBN: 0670034460

More imagination has been lavished on Mars than any other planet in our solar system -- from "War of the Worlds" to mass fascination with canals, and fantasies of little green men (and women, one must presume). I admit being caught up in that during the summer of 1967 which I spent as a budding rocket scientist at the Westinghouse plant in Horseheads, NY, hand-building solar flux measurement instrument tubes for the Mariner 6 and 7 Mars flyby satellites. It's a miracle the tubes worked, because my attention kept wandering off by a billion miles or so as I imagined what these pieces I had laid hands on would find when the Martian Canals came into view.

Dava Sobel's Planets resurrected all those archival memories in a daringly experimental mix of writing styles seeking to capture the feel of the planets rather than create one more scientific icecap of data lists and telemetry.

Sobel's first-person narrative of Mars, writing from the viewpoint of "Allan Hills 84001," a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica in 1984, works very well in leading the lay reader on an effortlessly educational jaunt that could easily have become a thicket of scientific jargon in the hands of a lesser writer.

"The collision that launched my journey dug a hole in Mars several miles wide," Sobel's narrative explains. "Astronomers think they have identified that particular crater on satellite images of mars near a small valley in the southern highlands .... As a Martian from a heavily cratered region, I was acquainted with meteorite strikes and in fact, already bore a fracture scar from having been crushed and reheated in a previous impact."

From such easily approachable prose as this, we learn about the meteoroid, which arrived 16 million years ago complete with a payload of biological fossils and a chemical composition that mirrored the Martian surface.

Scientifically trained readers will find no new trove of facts, but Sobel's unique series of presentations offer the ability to understand and appreciate the solar system in an aesthetic and creative way. In addition, she creates for the reader a significant sense of context by weaving a James Burke-esque fabric of historical, political, mythological, and literary references.

Not everything in The Planets is a planet. The book begins with the Sun (a star) and ends with Pluto (an overgrown asteroid or perhaps a planetesimal). In between we have all the usual suspects along with a smattering of moons, rings and a wonderful detour through the age-old connection among geometry, astronomy and music.

Pythagoras, Sobel writes, was the first to connect "'geometry in the humming of the strings' and 'music in the spacing of the spheres'." She leads us through Plato's "music of the spheres" through the Copernican "ballet of the planets," and right into the work of legendary astronomer Johannes Kepler who, in 1599, "derived a C major chord by equating the relative velocities of the planets with the intervals on a stringer instrument."

She finishes off this thread with Gustav Holst's popular symphony, "The Planets" which presaged World War I when he wrote the first suite, "Mars, the Bringer of War," in July 1914.

This web of connections illustrates the remarkable breadth and depth of Sobel's writing and is sure to offer both the hardest scientist and the rankest amateur new and creative ways of looking at the night sky.

But not everything in Sobel's experimental writing quiver works. Or perhaps, more correctly, not everything will work all the time for every reader. Her literary references – Alfred, Lord Tennyson, William Blake, C,S, Lewis, Oliver Wendell Holmes and many others – frequently set the tone of the surrounding prose, as if Sobel felt bound to emulate their style and pacing. What seems poignant or significant in the short quotes can grow tediously anachronistic if continued for page after page. "Night Air," the chapter on Neptune and Uranus, was the toughest for me to read, but should be a hit among fans of Jane Austen.

This is by way of saying that, there will be readers who will like "Night Air" the best and my favorites the worst. Each of the chapters is well written, but likeability will be a matter of taste.

In a day of scrapple-sausage writing, ground down to the lowest common denominator and written to fill a financially budgeted number of pages, Sobel deserves credit for having the courage to experiment and her publisher for making that experimentation available to readers.

As a former scientist decades ago turned to writing, I particularly appreciated Planets because it hollows out some daydreaming space among the facts and fosters a sense of imagination and wonder -- a right-brained oasis that could have been lost under the avalanche of data and left-brained logic. Sobel shows the reader why the imagination to dream is at least as important as the ability to reach out and touch the stars.

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