The Planets

I am delighted to read The Planets by Andrew Cohen and Brian Cox. After the end of the Cassini, Juno and New Horizons missions is a perfect time for a popular survey of what we know of the solar system, and it is relaxing to know that if Professor Cox says Saturn’s rings are less than a hundred million years old he has good grounds for saying it, unlike many political statements.

I was thinking that it does not affect my life, but that is untrue. If Saturn did not exist, Jupiter would not be orbiting where it is, and Earth might not exist. If humans did not have the curiosity and the engineering and political skills to find these things out, the human race would be significantly different, and if I were not interested in such things I would not be me. Even a minor change such as one more or less 100km moon of Saturn would have a butterfly-effect, perhaps big enough to end life on Earth.

And our understanding is influenced by the culture. As a small child I could recite the names of the planets even as I could count to a hundred, but thought of them as more or less unchanged since the system formed. I remember calling Neptune a gas giant, then an ice giant. The thought of the system as changing, planets moving much closer to the Sun or further away is based on new data, including from exoplanets, but seeing wild change as possible rather than incremental improvement affects and is affected by how we see society, and what is politically possible.

None of it is certain. Theories explain data, but are subject to change, as new data are collected or new possibilities imagined.

I find the whole very beautiful, the images, the striving and achievement, and the sharing.

Cox is a romantic and inspiring writer. He can be sharp: I think one of the reasons why anthropogenic climate change is so difficult for a certain type of person to accept is that atmospheres seem ethereal and tenuous and incapable of trapping enough heat to modify the temperatures on a planet significantly. For such people I suggest a trip to Venus, where they will be squashed and boiled and dissolved on the surface of Earth’s twin.

The character of the scientist requires not only comfort with but attraction to the unknown; an acceptance and delight in the complexity of Nature… the search for certainty is a fool’s errand, and the lesson is to find delight in not knowing while simultaneously committing to extending the domain of the known. That’s the key to science, the key to happiness and the only reasonable response to the existential challenge of existence.

We live in a solar system of wonders, of planets of storms and moons of ice, of landscapes and vistas that stir the imagination and enrich the soul.

Unfortunately Andrew Cohen is not so inspiring, but with such material he rarely fails to fascinate. It could be better edited, though, I spotted some errors and I am no expert.

The idea that a system allowing complex life-forms to evolve might be rare, requiring precise events to happen in the changes of orbits of the planets and even a large moon to hold the angle of rotation fairly constant is hard. It is up to us to sustain life in our galaxy. The engineering triumphs and alien wonders give me hope.

The book takes me back to childhood, to simple wonder at the strangeness of space and the brilliance of the people finding its secrets. I devoured it.

3 thoughts on “The Planets

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