September 2, 2008

The Planets



The Planets by Dava Sobel is a hybrid of a book. Not straight out science, not exactly fiction, but definitely new and, as always, interesting. I'll read anything by the author of Longitude, one of the best nonfiction books ever. In that book she combines history, science and great writing to give us a concise and breathless tale of something that could have been mind-numbingly boring, the search for a way to accurately determine longitude.

Her follow up was another well-written science/historical, but somewhat rehashed, telling of the life of Galileo, this time told through letters from his daughter.

When I first heard of The Planets I didn't care that it seemed to be another well-worn topic. It's a cliche to say she could publish her shopping lists, but I'm sure they're better written than mine. Her angle? She takes us on a tour through, yes, the history and scientific discoveries related to the planets but uses each as a jumping off point for meditations in other realms from geology to geography to astrology and beyond. It's, of course, brilliantly written and each chapter has a fresh slant. Some of the conceits could be found a little precious, Mars from the point of view of one of it's rocks pushed the line for me, and no, that letter from the discoverer of Uranus' wife is fiction, though factually correct. But these are minor quibbles when you are dealing with a writer that can breathe life into such a cold and distant solar system.

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