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The Planets Hardcover – October 11, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Sobel's purpose in this lovely and personal volume is to show us the planets as she sees them. Writing in quite a different mode than in her best-selling Longitude and Galileo's Daughter, Sobel offers intimate essays inspired by the planets in our solar system, which she describes as "an assortment of magic beans or precious gems in a little private cabinet of wonder—portable, evocative, and swirled in beauty." She frames each essay in a different light, using a particular planet as a stepping stone toward a discussion of larger issues. Her "Jupiter" essay becomes a meditation on astrology, while her essay on the Sun, which relates the actual birth of the universe seemingly ex nihilo, evokes the Genesis account of creation in both its themes and the cadence of its language. Put simply, Sobel's conceits work (even, remarkably, the essay on Mars written from the perspective of a Martian rock) because each beautifully frames its planet. An essay that begins with the story of Sobel's grandmother coming to the United States as an immigrant, for example, sets up the author's musings on the odd nature of Pluto as somewhere in between "planet" and "other." This resonant and eclectic collection—informative, entertaining and poetic—is a joy to read.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–The authors lifelong fascination with our solar system is evident in these essays that blend the latest scientific knowledge with popular culture, mythology, astrology, literature, music, and more. Beginning with the Big Bang and the Sun in Genesis, Sobel presents the nine planets in turn, inviting readers to share her sense of wonder. Each selection begins with a different point of view. In Sci-Fi, an ancient meteorite talks of the formation and physical nature of Mars; it is followed by an imaginative discussion of the colonization of the planet, including the views of science-fiction writers. Night Air begins with a letter from Caroline Herschel, daughter of Uranus discoverer William Herschel, and also his assistant to the American astronomer Maria Mitchell. Readers will probably assume that this is a real letter; not until the Details section at the end of the book is it revealed that it is fiction, although factually accurate. The writing is clear and elegant, almost lyrical at times, and the research is thorough. This unique and attractive book will be of interest to both science students and general readers.–Sandy Freund, Richard Byrd Library, Fairfax County, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; First Edition edition (October 11, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670034460
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670034468
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,020,788 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

58 of 67 people found the following review helpful By Sage Ross on October 11, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Dava Sobel's newest offering deviates from the historical path of her previous work, but the stellar prose that remains in The Planets will inevitably pull in any who wander too close. This book touches on the social, religious and intellectual aspects of the solar system from antiquity to January 2005, but cannot properly be called history; Sobel simply stuffs the most interesting stories and facts about each celestial body into a slim 231 pages (plus a glossary and a brief appendix of factual details). Of course, interesting stories and facts about the planets could easily fill a book many, many times as long. The beauty of The Planets is that Sobel (who has clearly culled from an enormous pool of potential content) selected only most fascinating and unusual to include. Few but historians of planetary astronomy and the most dedicated trivia buffs are likely to be bored by too much they already know, even though nearly everything comes from published sources. And even if the contents are old news, Sobel's packaging is a joy.

The Planets is organized into thematic chapters that, for the most part, read like separate essays. The introduction and conclusion give the context for Sobel's longtime and continuing passion for the Planets; the former is not particularly riveting, but does not detract. The chapters-there are ten including the Sun and the Moon, with Uranus and Neptune sharing one-bear titles indicating the overarching theme of each, though each theme is stretched far enough to allow a feeling of continuity as the book proceeds outward from the Sun to the edge of the solar system.

Beginning appropriately with "Genesis," Sobel's Sun chapter is perhaps the least novel (as well as the shortest).
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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful By J. Holst on January 19, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I read this book looking to find insight into the most up-to-date info on the solar system, hoping to learn more beyond my layperson knowledge. Instead of a generalized grand tour or a data-rich analysis, I made my way through a highly stylized, poetic ode to the celestial bodies, with a smattering of mythology, popular culture, and some scientific history.

I have to admit that the book was well-done, extremely well-written, and it's obvious that Sobel knows her stuff. But I just wasn't that interested. I enjoyed some of the facts she did provide, but I waited in vain for more. I wanted to spend more time with each world, and to read a summary of all the best opinions about the planets.

All in all, I would recommend this book if you want a literary take on the subject. On the other hand, if you're more like me, I would avoid it.
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61 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Crocker on October 11, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Why, I asked myself, would Dava Sobel pick a subject as done to death as the planets of our solar system after mining such rich veins of prose ore as the race to measure longitude accurately and Galileo from his daughter's point of view? The answer - this fantastic author can take the overdone and give it new life! In The Planets, Dava Sobel takes the reader on a tour of planetary astronomy and the 9 objects currently classified as major planets plus the Sun and the Moon with 12 very different chapters and no feeling of having read a few chapters in an astronomy textbook. Chapters 7 [SCI-FI (Mars)] and 10 [NIGHT AIR (Uranus and Neptune)] have the most interesting points of view. Chapter 7 is narrated by ALH84001, the famous Martian meteorite that contains possible signs of life, and Chapter 10 is written as a long letter from aging astronomer Caroline Herschel (sister of the discoverer of Uranus) to American astronomer Maria Mitchell. This is the kind of book I'd recommend to an avid reader who usually avoids books on science. I enjoyed this book immensely and would recommend to anyone with an interest in astronomy and history. I'm getting my copy of The Planets into my high school library as quickly as possible.
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18 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan Hoyle on October 11, 2007
Format: Paperback
I have not read any of the author's other books, so I was not forewarned as to what to expect. Only half this book contains any science. The remainder is filled with distracting references to astrology and many poetic verses loosely refering to the planets. The story of planetary discovery include such important information as the discoverer's zodiac sign and how that effected their missions.

Other annoyances include her insistence on refering to Mercury as "he", Venus as "she", etc. Her disturbing fascination with her friend's eating moon dirt is hard to account for as well. One particular low point was during the chapter on Jupiter in which she gives the horoscope for the Voyager spacecraft, indicating that had NASA consulted this, they might have foreseen its problems.

In fairness, there is a bit of good science found in here, and very current as well. Although there are some clever literary devices used in the book, they are not typical for a book on science (for example, the chapter on Mars nararated by the Martian rock found in Antartica). If this book were edited down to its science, it would be about half its size.

If you are looking for something avant garde with a stream of consciousness approach to science, then you may enjoy this book. If, however, you are interested in reading an accurate understanding of the solar system, I cannot recommend it.
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