NON FICTION: The Little Green Spacecraft We All Live On
Morrish, John, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
By Dava Sobel
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It is perhaps unfortunate for Dava Sobel that her extended meditation on the solar system's nine planets should appear just as some astronomers claim to have found a tenth. Still, the publicity surrounding the discovery will have done the book no real harm, especially since one of its themes is the impermanence and mutability of everything that hurtles around our Sun. Besides, no one has yet agreed on the real nature of Xena, whose temporary name is taken from a television series.
The names of the planets, or most of them, have been fixed for centuries, but newly discovered objects must conform to a highly structured naming scheme. If it proves to be a planet, Xena's name will be changed to that of a classical god. Should it prove to be something more minor, for instance one of the hundred or so lesser lumps of rock and ice whirling beyond Pluto in the so-called Kuiper Belt, there is more latitude. The global catalogue of underworld deities provides most of the names for these objects but one, apparently, is known as 'Smiley', after the Le Carr hero, although its official name is the more prosaic 1992QB1.
Naming conventions are just one of the many by-ways explored in this ruminative and frequently poetic book, a series of essays that takes a planet at a time and explores not just the scientific facts of its existence but its broader cultural meaning. That's a considerable undertaking, and some readers will feel short-changed when Sobel's interests do not correspond with their own. There must, for instance, be much more to say about images of the Moon in literature, or even pop song, than we get here.
It is science that excites Sobel. There's a real gee-whizzery about her treatment of telescopes and space probes and their many astonishing discoveries in recent years. Her treatment of the development of astronomy over the centuries is generous, if concise. Although the ancients had their confusions, notably the persistent idea that the planets moved in concentric crystal spheres around the Earth, they also achieved remarkable feats, finding the first six planets by tracing their wanderings against the fixed stars using the naked eye alone.
Copernicus, writing in the early 16th century, not only placed the Sun at the centre of the solar system, he proposed that the Sun was holding the planets there by a mysterious force. …