Richard Corfield's LIVES OF THE PLANETS: A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM
A book review by Dennis D. McDonald
Corfield starts at Mercury and works his way out. In the process he summarizes what we know now about the solar system (circa 2007) now that we’ve had several decades of (mostly) robot exploration.
As he did with The Silent Landcsape he weaves history together with science. What emerges is a well-told story of exploration. I noticed a few things in particular:
- The planets and other bodies that orbit the sun make up a very mixed bag of geologies, climates, and life potential. One can’t help wonder how representative our solar system is of other solar systems and what this means for the possibility of life evolving elsewhere.
- Our knowledge of the planets has altered radically in recent decades since we started conducting fly-bys, orbits, and landings. At least two things emerge from this recent accumulation of knowledge. First, there’s no escaping the value of actually getting up close to other planets in order to actually see what’s going on there. Second, you can’t help but to begin appreciating how increasing knowledge of other worlds impacts our knowledge and understanding of our own.
- The role of competition, especially between the U.S. and the old Soviet Union, played a major role in boosting our exploration of the planets. Now that the Cold War is over and Japan, China, India, and others have become space-faring nations, it will be very interesting to see how this change in global politics impacts further planetary exploration.
- The stars of this book are clever unmanned devices and the teams of scientists and engineers behind them. Human exploration is only mentioned - and relevant - in passing. I don’t think this is intended as a criticism of manned exploration, but it does make you realize and appreciate what one can accomplish with unmanned spacecraft carrying out incredibly detailed and planned missions.
- Mistakes happen. Launch vehicles explode, crafts disappear upon entering alien atmospheres, and devices don’t always work correctly when they finally land. Redundancy helps, but it comes at great cost.
I intend to read more books by Corfield. He writes well and has a gift for organizing and presenting complex ideas and information without dumbing it down or insulting the reader’s intelligence. Perhaps most impressive is that he makes you think about the meaning and significance of his subjects. In my opinion, that’s a gift.
Review copyright (c) 2010 by Dennis D. McDonald. To find more reviews like this scroll down. To find out more about my consulting services go here.