The Planets

Illustration.  The space probe New Horizon was launched in January 2006 og passed Pluto in July 2015. That's pretty far out.
Illustration. The space probe New Horizon was launched in January 2006 og passed Pluto in July 2015. That’s pretty far out. Photo: NASA via Wikimedia Commons

The Planets
Dava Sobel
250 pages
Fourth Estate, 2005

I challenged myself to read 30 books between January and May last year. I had not been able to complete any books for ages, and when the local library had their annual challenge, The Book Worm, I decided to challenge myself alongside my daughter. The library challenges all the third to seventh graders in the municipality. This year I am going to challenge myself again, but I will extend it to the whole year.

The first book I read in 2016 was something as rare as a book with a lot of scientific facts written in a very poetic language. This is astronomy, history, mythology and poetry in one. The titles of the chapters give an indication of that: Creation (the Sun), Mythology (Mercury), Beauty (Venus), Geography (Earth), Lunacy (Moon), Science Fiction (Mars), Astrology (Jupiter), Music of the Spheres (Saturn), Night Air (Uranus and Neptune) and UFO (Pluto).

I’m hardly an expert on astronomy, but it is a topic that interests me, so I have read some. It seems like the author has done accurate research, and that makes this a pretty good introduction to astronomy and a book you can enjoy without knowing much about the field before you started reading. It’s not easy to popularize astronomy using only words. There are numerous books that do a good visual job because they rely on beautiful photographs and artists rendition of the solar system, but the former New York Times science journalist has done a decent job with nothing but words. The planets are the finest jewels we have, and Sobel has conveyed this beauty better than most.

I enjoyed the whole book, but Mars and Pluto have captivated me for a long time, as these two chapters did. The author used an “alien”  (Allan Hills 84001) as a narrator through the whole chapter Science Fiction. This meteorite was found in Antarcrica in 1984, but had probbaly been hiding there since a meteor impact on Mars sent it to us about four billion years ago. The planet Mars intrigued and appealed to peoples’ imagination with early “textbooks” such as Percival Lowell’s Mars (1896), Mars and its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Sbode of Life (1908).

The astronmer Lowell is best known for his claim that there were man-made channels on Mars. The astronomers had limited opportunity to study Mars because they had to do it when the distance between Earth and Mars was shortest, which happens every fifteen to seventeen years. The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed in 1877 what he described as a network of rectiliniar furrows he called Mars-canali. The next chance to study this would be in 1892, but Lowell didn’t have time to wait that long. He was impatient and decided to publish his theory, but made the error of translating canali to canals instead of channels, which is not the same. The first word referrs to a long, narrow space created by people, while a channel is a bed where a natural stream of water runs. It was damaging enough to his credibility that he claimed there were artificial waterways on Mars, but when he explained this presence by stating that this had been a desperate irrigation attempt by a dying species, he couldn’t count on much support. He clearly should have been patient and waited fifteen years, but this headless and flippant approach to science is more common than many people realize.

Scientists need to stick to what they can observe, which reminds me of something I wrote about in a former entry, uniformity. Most of the major scientific disciplines have a theory about uniformity, and in astrobiology the belief is that any civilization anywhere in the universe would go through the same technological steps in their development. In other words, we know what is going to happen because it has happened before. There was a sudden change in weather here in Norway after Christmas. I live in the mildest part of the country where we had down to ten degrees below (C), while people east of the mountains had temperatures in the twenties. I expected this because it has happened before. I don’t know why, but we seem to get air from Siberia around that time. Sometimes it’s worse (like six years ago when we lived east of the mountains and had blue temperatures between twenty and fourty for two months) and sometimes it’s better (like last year when I believe five below what the coldest all winter).

Back to Lowell. He may not have been as as far out there as many assumed at the time. There is still an enormous scientific interest in Mars, and many believe there may have been life on Mars. NASA also study other planets because they want to find information about our past and future. When serious scholars talk about the possibilities of finding aliens in our solar system, a bacteria would be a tremendous success in their minds. I’m afraid they are not looking for intelligence, although I suspect some of them are because they are simple-minded enough to believe that life on other planets would prove the Bible wrong.

It’s been known for a long time that there are patterns on Mars that could have been created by runing water, but NASA confirmed as late as September 2015 that there is still liquid water running down valleys and craters in summer. There has always been close ties between science and science fiction, and I think we can expect more stories about the red planet. These are some previous examples: The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1918), The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898), The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950), and Moving Mars by Greg Bear (1993).

Pluto is small, cold and distant. In a manner of speaking it doesn't match up and is frequently because it's not like the other planets. It does not fit. That makes him special in my eyes.
Pluto is small, cold and distant. In a manner of speaking it doesn’t match up and is frequently underestimated because it’s not like the other planets. It does not fit. That makes him special in my eyes. Photo: NASA via Wikimedia Commons

I’m also fascinated by planet x, which was the topic for the chapter on Pluto. The mathematician Urban Le Verrier discovered irregularities in Uranus’s orbit in 1840. He concluded that the gravidation from an unknown planet had to be what influenced Uranus. Astronomers found Neptune where he thought this planet would be, but some astronomers continued looking for planet x. They didn’t think one planet was enough to affect Uranus.

Percival Lowell had gambled his reputation with Mars, and lost. Like a gambler he continued playing to win back what he lost, but in his case I suppose he didn’t have much to lose. He spent the last fifteen years of his life trying to find planet x, but didn’t succeed. It was found fourteen years after his death, but it turned out to be Pluto. There are still a few questioning whether the problem with the gravitational pull has been solved, but according to data from NASA’s Voyager 2 in 1992, slightly inaccurate measurements had created this hypothesis.

Science is all about how we interpret what we observe, based on what we know at the moment. Then you need to fight hard (let’s face it, if they had the technology they’d been slugging it out using light sabres and both sides of the force in stead of words) to convince doubting and jealous colleagues. On the other hand, conclusions may very well be changed at a later stage when more information has been gathered. It is therefore not certain that the last word has been spoken and written about planet x or Pluto, which lost its status as a planet in 2006. One thing is at least certain, astronomy is never boring.

I otherwise recommend a you tube-search for “Gustav Holst and the planets.” The chapter on Saturn deals with the most famous tribute to our solar system. It is as beautiful as the planets.


I’m torn between big and small, dependence and independence. This book was published by Fourth Estate, which was one of the last independent publishers left in Britain when it was bought by Harper Collins. This is one of the five big publishers in the Englishspeaking world and it’s owned by the deadly cancer called Rupert Murdoch. In some ways big can have some advantages, and I like how conveniant it is to shop at Amazon for example, but it’s sort of like having a democracy where you are sent to prison if you criticize the leaders. If you want to write an honest book about Rupert Murdoch, the former independent publisher Fourth Estate probably isn’t your best choice. They might publish, but I wonder how eager they’d be to promote the book.


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