I just finished reading Dava Sobel’s book, The Planets and I absolutely loved it! I remember being fascinated by things astronomical in elementary school science class, but haven’t spent that much time thinking about things like planets and stars and orbits in recent years. Perhaps it was Sobel’s own discussion of her childhood fascination with the heavens that quickly drew me into this book. She opens by discussing the model solar system she made as a child (a project that has been a fixture at every science fair I have ever attended!), and the sense of wide-eyed wonder that drove that project lingers throughout the rest of the book. The book is certainly grounded in meticulous scholarly research, however it is the mixture of personal anecdotes, mythology, art, history and science that makes this such a fascinating read. The facts, figures, stories and histories in The Planets are wonderfully woven together in a narrative style rarely found in non-fiction writing.
The Planets is a cultural history that focuses on shifting knowledge and belief systems about the solar system at various points in time and, as such, ancient mythology sits comfortably next to discussions about the chemical make-up of specific planetary atmospheres. Whenever I read about the history of science I am always fascinated by the changing process of creating knowledge and, indeed, what types of knowledge are privileged and promoted in different historical contexts. In this vein, I was intrigued by Sobel’s comments on how astronomy has become much more of a collaborative effort in recent years (she uses the large team involved with the Cassini spacecraft as a particularly illustrative example here).