by Dava Sobel
Fourth Estate, $217
Like Diane Ackerman (the pre-Raphaelite bombshell after whom the molecule dianeackerone was named), Dava Sobel serves a rare and luminous consciousness. The author of award-winning best-sellers Longitude and Galileo's Daughter and a former science correspondent for The New York Times, Sobel again sifts science for history, biography and poetry in The Planets. Her large eyes are unclouded. Her galaxies bud and bloom like day-lilies against their backdrop of infinity. 'Even as the planets reveal themselves to scientific investigation,' she writes, 'they retain the emotional weight of their long influence on our lives, and all that they have ever signified in Earth's skies. Gods of old, and demons, too, they were once - they still are - the sources of an inspiring light, the wanderers of night, the far horizon of the landscape of home.'
This home of which she speaks belongs to all of us, but few appreciate it with such rapture. 'My planet fetish began, as best I can recall, in third grade, at age eight - right around the time I learned the Earth had siblings in space, just as I had older brothers in high school and college.' So the book opens and so we understand the deep intimacy of Sobel's relationship with the sky. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto were always, to her, both 'a paragon of clockwork regularity' and magic. 'The Book of Genesis tells how the dust of the ground, molded and exalted by the breath of life, became the first man. The ubiquitous dust of the early Solar System - flecks of carbon, specks of silicon, molecules of ammonia, crystals of ice - united bit by bit into 'planetesimals', which were the seeds, or first stages, of planets.'
The sky is no less entrancing to Sobel because of its quotidian nature. She pays homage to each planet in chapter form. Myth and hardcore fact are bled of fizz and spin: '[T]he Sun's magnificent corona, normally invisible, flashes into view. Pearl and platinum-coloured streamers of coronal gas surround the vanished Sun like a jagged halo.'
We also learn that the god Mercury traversed the realms of the living and the dead, 'conducting the souls of the deceased down to their final abode in Hades'; that on Venus at night, the 'red-hot rocks, cooked halfway to their melting point by the ambient heat and pressure, resemble the embers of a fire'; and that during the Apollo project, a friend ate a quantum of moon dust stolen for her by a love-struck astronomer ('I still envy Carolyn her taste of the moon. In reality I know she is married now to a veterinarian in upstate New York and has three grown children. She doesn't glow in the dark or walk on air ... What could it have contained, anyway, to preoccupy me all these years?')
Even the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, recorded with the usual death's head prose by the media, is by Sobel extinguished with all the pomp and glory of Louis Quatorze. 'In 1992, this comet brushed so close to Jupiter that the planet tore it into twenty- one chunks as big as icebergs, plus many more as small as snowballs. The pieces then circled Jupiter for two years in a single file, like a flying string of pearls, before ... [exploding] in fireballs and thousand-miles-high plumes of debris.'
Sobel's prose is crafted and exquisite. Hers is a renaissance mind, and language is her medium for synthesis. When Martian spring is sprung, 'white rime sublimes directly back into the atmosphere without pausing to melt'. She is at her most liquid with Venus: 'On moonless nights ... her strong light throws soft, unexpected shadows onto pale walls or patches of ground. The faint silhouette of a Venus shadow, which evades detection by the colour-sensitive inquiry of a direct gaze, often answers to sidelong glances that favour the black-and-white acuity of peripheral vision.'
In essence, The Planets is a love song to the cosmos. Sobel offers no revelations beyond that of an ecstatic, almost Victorian, intellectual surrender to beauty. She is content to report from the sidelines, dazzled by the spectacle of high-octane intellectual curiosity. 'Sometimes the stupefying view into deep space can send me burrowing like a small animal into the warm safety of Earth's nest,' she writes. 'But just as often I feel the universe pull me by the heart, offering, in all its other Earths elsewhere, some larger community to belong to.'