three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
20-Jan-Feb-2006
By: 
Dava Sobel
user_rating: 
0

A-PlanetsEach year, the moon drifts about an inch farther away from Earth; eventually, as the moon assumes a new, more distant position, only some of us on Earth will ever see moonlit nights again. In The Planets, a collection of essays on each of the planets (from Mercury to Pluto), Sobel offers fascinating facts about our solar system and discusses each planet from personal, literary, musical, pop-culture, biographical, and historical perspectives. In the present-tense chapter on Earth, Sobel covers 2,000 years of history. By contrast, she introduces the history of Neptune and Uranus in a fictitious letter written by Caroline Herschel, who helped her brother discover Uranus. Each essay expresses Sobel’s awe for ancient planets and the modern discoveries that have made knowledge of them possible.
Viking. 270 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0670034460

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"With a captivating mix of erudition and whimsy, she shows how the planets are repositories of meaning—not only for the ancient Mayans who worshipped (and later offered blood sacrifices to) Venus, or the Renaissance thinkers who overturned an Earth-centered universe, but for anyone who has ever looked into the night sky and asked, ‘Where did we come from?’" Joan Keener

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"By using a surprisingly harmonious combination of personal reflection, hard science, history, fictive letter-writing, and poetry, Sobel sheds new light on those familiar orbs in the night sky. … Part of what brings Sobel’s subject matter alive, so to speak, is her knack for creating a cast of characters who have contributed to astronomy throughout the ages." Meg Daly

San Diego Union-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"In 18 small pages, for example, Sobel says more about the moon and our relationship to it than most textbooks. … Sobel’s gift, which is so evident and admirable in this book, is her ability to infuse dry, even mundane, science with poetry and romance, all of it easily and happily absorbed." Scott LaFee

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Each essay is full of what I think of as the ‘Sobel touch,’ mingling odd historical coincidences with up-to-the-minute NASA readout of data. … To have an author of Sobel’s standing casually juxtapose statements about the discoveries made by space probes and statements about astrology only adds fuel to the bonfires of pseudoscience and irrationality." James Trefil

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"Sobel’s literary relationship with Galileo dominates the next chapter. … To the dismay of scientifically inclined readers, this chapter carries the title ‘Astrology,’ and Sobel’s prose gives credence to the casting of horoscopes for both Galileos: the man and the robot explorer." Fred Bortz

USA Today 3 of 5 Stars
"Readers who appreciated Sobel’s rich writing in Galileo’s Daughter also will enjoy The Planets. Those looking for a science-first disquisition on Earth and its neighbors might be disappointed by moments of schmaltz." Dan Vergano

Seattle Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"What unites both books is Sobel’s focus on a single individual to tell her story. … Unfortunately, Sobel’s new book, The Planets, does not live up to the standards set by her earlier work." David B. Williams

Critical Summary

Sobel, author of best-selling Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter, combines spare, poetic, and descriptive writing with facts worthy of a textbook. Readers will be familiar with some of Sobel’s stories about Kepler, Galileo, and Halley, but lesser-known ones featuring Maria Mitchell or Clyde Tombaugh will fascinate neophytes. While Sobel cleverly makes each planet relevant to various themes, from women’s issues to modern technologies, and never fails to entertain, critics agree that Planets is not her best work to date. A few critics took umbrage at the chapter on Jupiter, which, in its embrace of astrology, undermines her scientific credibility. In addition, some critics viewed the different voices of each essay as schizophrenic. In the end, however, Planets won’t disappoint sky gazers, especially those forever done with textbooks.