19 December 2012

The Planets, by Dava Sobel

Posted by Callan Bentley

I got The Planets from the Fort Valley library a few weeks ago, because Dava Sobel wrote it. She wrote the excellent Longitude, and that was enough for me. Also, I’ve been really into astronomy lately. Watching the meteor shower earlier this week was stunning, and I loved training my binoculars on nebulae and stars numerous beyond imagining, littering the dark sky. Plus, the book’s cover was beautiful, and enticing.

Here’s the thing, though: I didn’t really enjoy it that much. Parts were awesome, insightful, and beautifully written. Other parts felt like a “grab bag” for any mythological reference to a particular planet or solar system body, regardless of quality or relevance. Sometimes her style works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

She mixes it up quite a bit. The initial chapter, on the Sun, was far too rich in Biblical allusions for my taste, but I really enjoyed the Mars chapter, written from the perspective of the meteorite ALH 84001. I found this to be enticing and lively, and really a great way to get an overview of Martian science, even though all the footnotes in that chapter cite science fiction novels rather than peer-reviewed research. The Moon chapter was solid and enjoyable, and hit the right mix between mythos and logos. Example: “The parched Moon pulls at Earth’s seas as though jealous of them.” That poetic sentence serves as a bridge between a discussion of lunar volcanism (and degassing) and the phenomenon of terrestrial tides.

The chapter on Jupiter is mixed with a history of astrology, and Saturn’s chapter is paired with a discussion of music (“the music of the spheres”) and harmonics. This worked for me, and I learned new stuff from each. In contrast, the Uranus/Neptune chapter was weak, written as an olde-timey letter from the British/German sister of one astronomer to another female astronomer, an amateur, in America in the late 1800s. Venus? Weak. Mercury? Meh. This inconsistency made the book hard to read, and felt like it was without an overarching form. Unlike Cloud Atlas, each chapter stands alone, unrelated to its neighbors except by being grouped under a single (lovely) cover.

The Guardian (UK) was a bit more acerbic in its review, but they felt the way I felt about some things.

Overall, I’d say The Planets promised more than it delivers, but that some chapters were definitely keepers, and others were the sort of material to throw back and try again.