10 April 2006

Precious Gems in the Night Sky: The Planets by Dava Sobel

"For myself, I confess that none of the truly staggering data I have been privileged to share here has altered the planets' fundamental appeal to me as an assortment of magic beans or precious gems in a little private cabinet of wonder -- portable, evocative, and swirled in beauty." -- Dava Sobel, The Planets

Three things recommended this book to me: the eye-catching cover depicting a map of Tyco Brahe's universe, the author Dava Sobel whose books Longitude and Galelio's Daughter I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and its simple title: The Planets. A wonderful science writer writing about the cosmos, with a cool cover to boot. There was much to expect, but, it turns out, plenty to disappoint.

The Planets is divided into 11 chapters -- one for each planet, an intro & a coda. But the titles of each chapter suggests something different: Mythology, Beauty, Geography, Night Air. Each chapter discusses a portion of our Solar System in conjunction with a corresponding theme. Part history, part lore, part scientific discussion, each chapter discusses not only the heavenly body referred to in the chapter title, but also a history of how the heavens have been defined otherwise throughout the history of western thought.

In some chapters this works well, such as the chapter on Mythology and Mercury, or the chapter on Sci-F and Mars. But elsewhere, this device seemed too contrived and annoyed me. For instance, in "Music of the Spheres", Sobel writes of Holst symphony "The Planets" and Saturn. After a few paragraphs the connection becomes overworked. Perhaps Holst's well-known piece did represent a view of our universe, but what does it tell us about the universe? Isn't the music really just inspired by the planets, not descriptive of them -- not in a scientific way at any rate -- although ancient astronomers may have written of the music of the stars? Maybe there are solar sounds and ratio in orbital patterns similar to music, but is there really a connection, a harmony more physical than metaphysical? If so, I didn't get it from Sobel's writing.

Similarly, while Sobel's description of astrology is interesting, she seems to both support and refute its validity. From a historical perspective, the book discusses astrology's importance throughout history, and how the scientific revelation the the earth was not the center of the universe made astrology obsolete. Yet, she writes of a 'star chart' for a satellite's launch date and how 'accurate' it was. Elsewhere she begins with an elaborate description of an Ellis Island immigrant and likens it to 'false memories' of those who claim to be victims of alien abductions. She then makes a quantum cognitive jump into the cosmos to discuss the search for Pluto and the discovery of the Kuiper Body Objects. Once the leap is executed, the reader doesn't return to the alien kidnappings; there is no connection and perhaps the only thing worse than this preposterous association would have been if Sobel DID loop back in some sort of literary mobius strip way to the world of aliens. If Sobel wants to believe in astrology or Roswellian creatures performing surgeries on the human populace during REM sleep, fine with me, but I don't like the scientific mysticism attributed to it in this book.

Lastly, in a few places I tired of reading information from Sobel's other books. Intrigued as I was in learning about Harrison's clocks and his efforts to solve the 'longitude problem', the information regarding maps and efforts to define longitude seemed repetitive. Information that seemed almost a recitation from Galileo's Daughter, while not completely irrelevant, read as if a lazy editor had cloned the earlier text in order to lengthen this book.

I like the idea of this book -- science facts regarding our universe coupled with a history of how the universe has been understood throughout the ages by art, literature and religion. That there was a time -- long before we had the words to define and describe our solar system in today's scientific terms -- when the arts and science and faith were so intertwined that they were inseparable. But, because it can't always be connected specifically to current scientific knowledge, the book in its execution becomes too disjointed.

Yet, to return to the passage quoted above: "...[N]one of the truly staggering data I have been privileged to share here has altered the planets' fundamental appeal to me as an assortment of...precious gems in a little private cabinet of wonder..." If Sobel's intent is to evoke wonder and awe of our universe, perhaps she is successful in showing how it has inspired throughout the centuries. Those precious sparkling gems in the night sky have symbolized an abundance of human thought and experience. Maybe the poets and the scientists marvel at the same thing, but for different reasons, in different voices, in different times....

Postscript -- On a readerly level, I most enjoyed the first half of Chapter 10, 'Night Air' in which Sobel writes a 'fictionalized' letter from astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750 - 1848) to astronomer Maria Mitchell (1818 - 1889). In the notes section Sobel indicates that the facts in the letter are true although it is unknown if the women corresponded. Maybe Sobel should try her hand at historical fiction next time.

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