The Planets

Dava Sobel’s The Planets is a bewitching, wondrous read.  Sobel is an international prize-winning best-selling science writer, creating books that combine intelligence and knowledge with passion and enthusiasm.  The Planets tells the story of each member of our solar system, from myth and history, astrology and science fiction, to the latest data when she was writing from the 21st Century’s robotic space probes.

Sobel’s general introduction gives a small personal history of fascination with the planets, and segues smoothly into a historical preoccupation throughout human history of looking up and trying to work out just what was going on up there.  She then moves into individual chapters for the bodies in our solar system, including the Sun and Earth’s Moon.  This is a book of science, history, and biography, but Sobel writes like a storyteller.  It is utterly compelling and totally stunning how one writer can distil scientific, historical and mythological knowledge about the bodies in space into potent, short chapters.

Sobel’s writing reads like poetry at times.  Each sentence is packed with both distilled fact and actual beauty that I deliberately slowed down my pace of reading to both appreciate her style as well as absorb the knowledge:

“At totality, when the Moon is a pool of soot hiding the bright solar sphere, and the sky deepens to a crepuscular blue, the Sun’s magnificent corona, normally invisible, flashes into view.  Pearl and platinum-coloured streamers of coronal gas surround the vanished Sun like a jagged halo.  Long red ribbons of electrified hydrogen leap up from behind the black Moon and dance in the shimmering corona.”

So many times while reading I just had to put the book down to share what I had just learnt.  Sobel is so well informed and has an incredible skill weaving her poetic style with established science that you are taken on a journey with an intelligent and passionate guide.  You genuinely feel wonder along with her when contemplating and absorbing the facts of the solar system.

“The parched Moon pulls at the Earth’s seas as though jealous of them.  Twice each day the ocean tides rise and fall to the call of lunar gravity.  The waters rise once when they pass beneath the Moon, which makes intuitive sense, but then they rise again after they have been twirled round to the other side of the world, where they face away from the Moon.  There you might say they appear to rise, when really the Earth is being pulled out from under them by the tug of the Moon.”

My only complaint about this book is that, published in 2005, it feels like there may be entire books’ worth of new knowledge to contribute to this story.  I was so imbued with the same passion and curiosity as Sobel that reading The Planets 12 years later I felt a loss that she hadn’t written on the latest scientific discovery.  Reading this book set me on my own research journey to find out how the latest interplanetary probes went, and what they have seen, but what was missing was Sobel’s particular style of interpreting and writing it.

This book feels like both a breathtaking and intimate portrait of our solar system, the lights in the sky that have captured humanity’s imagination.  This incredible solar system below, above and around us is full of both fascination and beauty, and Sebel is an informed and poetic guide.

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