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Friday, 13 October 2006

The Planets bookcover; Harper PerennialReview: The Planets, Dava Sobel (2005)

This lively, epigrammatical little book uncovers secrets that most people will have been blissfully unaware of. Now we can read about our stellar neighbours in a series of bite-sized tranches that expose with a crackle and snap innumerable facts that are delivered to us in a creamy, chocolate-covered style.

Like hors d'oeuvres or sweetmeats, these treats are both tasty and nourishing. Sobel's idea of fun is to wrap up the complexity of astronomy in imagery that brings home knowledge with an immediacy normally found in novels. I wouldn't call it literary journalism, but it comes close to that. Very close, in fact.

The outlying ancient debris distributes itself over such a distended area that the Solar System's periphery is transparent as a crystal ball. Through the bubble of its outer boundary we can see for ever — across the Milky Way home of our Sun, into the other galaxies that twirl like pinwheels strewn across the Universe, their many billion stars frothing with planets.

This is heady stuff, and makes you lust after further information from up above. If only Sobel would launch a blog that delivered daily updates, followed expeditions, traced trends, and solved riddles as they are posed. To keep up with the exploding volume of galactic data we need a committed commentator, and Sobel seems the right person for the job.

I think people forget that science is an imaginative process. Scientists are extremely imaginative people, which is not the general impression of them...

Too true. Sobel can work wonders in this area, I'm certain of it. With her powers of journalistic invention and her firm grasp on the nettle of knowledge, Sobel is ideally placed to be our interpreter, our oracle, our modern-day shaman.

This little book is recommended.

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