How to take an awesome journey into the cosmos

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am

The Planets

By Dava Sobel

Published by Harper Perennial

ISBN 1 84115 621 3

If you recently enjoyed Stephen and Lucy Hawking's George's Secret Key To The Universe, your next journey into the cosmos should be Dava Sobel's The Planets. This is a thrills-a-minute trip to worlds about which we know very little.

Sobel has the amazing talent of writing about complicated science and make it entertainingly accessible.

This does not mean she dumbs down the subject: The Planets is a full-fact journey around the solar system. But it differs from other books on the same subject because it is so engaging and readable.

Sobel's book is the adventure story of a lifetime, offering thrills and facts to all readers, even Earth-bound ones who think they have no interest in space.

The Planets is a grand tour of the solar system, making stop-offs on each member of our planetary system. Like all good guides, Sobel has researched thoroughly and planned everything down to the last detail, making sure just the right amount of story and science is presented to the tourist.

Sobel has not written a textbook, so don't expect a long list of facts and scientific jargon.

The author has been fascinated with outer space since an early age, and in The Planets she skilfully blends science with history, popular culture, music, literature and anything else she thinks appropriate to the stories she is telling.

The Planets covers a vast area of knowledge but Sobel makes every light year attention-grabbing and enjoyable.

Sobel sets out her intentions clearly in the first chapter. This is going to be a personal journey to the planets in the company of an enthusiast and she hopes we enjoy taking the trip with her.

She begins by explaining her childhood fascination with visits to the planetarium and discovering all she could about the Earth's neighbouring worlds. Then, after a deep breath, the planet-hopping begins.

The origins of the sun are where it all started, and Sobel's explanation of this difficult-to-understand Big Bang theory is crystal clear. She then works outwards, taking us to each planet and teaching us all about them.

Do you know the order of the planets in the solar system? Sobel throws in the mnemonic 'My very educated mother just served us nine pies' to make sure we won't forget.

Sobel ensures we appreciate the huge differences between the planets by presenting each in a different way.

The chapter on Mars is narrated by a Martian meteorite found in the ice of Antarctica. Saturn is presented through music, and Uranus begins with a fictional letter written by a relative of the scientist who discovered the planet.

Put simply, The Planets is a unique and fascinating read.

John Millen can be contacted on