Get out your anorak , it's a very dull day on Mars

The Cambridge Planetary Handbook
September 8, 2000

The Sun's nine planets and, by this book's count, 61 satellites are individuals. In pre-telescopic times, only six planets and one moon were known, and we could see mainly their brightness, their colour and their motions. But even then, each had its own character, allusions to which survive in linguistic fossils such as "lunatic", "mercurial", "jovial" and "saturnine".

From the visits of space probes, we know that the planets are all individual in character.
Mars is red because of the iron oxide compounds (rust) that cover its surface, so its connection with blood and fire, and the warlike properties that this colour invoked, is obviously fanciful. Imaginary too are the telescopic depictions of Mars of a century ago, which showed a world criss-crossed by canals, intersecting at oases, the apparent attempts by a dying civilisation to irrigate drying plains. These speculations and the over-interpreted observations of faint surface markings on Mars inspired the science-fiction image of Mars, populated by warlike beings escaping from their dying world by colonising ours.

The truth about Mars is as wonderful, if not more so. Three billion years ago it was a planet of lakes and rivers. Something dreadful happened and its water disappeared, most escaping into space, some freezing below ground. It is now a desert. We will shortly know from the Mars probes whether life evolved on Mars when it had water, and whether this life still survives in niche environments. Mars still compels attention as the planet most like ours, possibly a planet with life, and one whose global climate change makes ours pale into insignificance.

There are many such stories in the solar system, worlds that our own world could have emulated, but did not. But The Cambridge Planetary Handbook is a book not of stories, not of wonder, but of facts - dry as the dust of a dead planet. It has lists of planetary data such as atmospheric composition, magnetic field, solar irradiance, volume and wind speed. It lists satellites and their properties. It describes the features,telescopic appearances and histories of observations of the planets, as well as miscellaneous "interesting facts" about the planets.

I imagine that there is someone who could read this book in bed, agog for the interesting facts. But I also imagine this person to be dressed, not in pyjamas, but in an anorak. For most people the book will surely make the planets as dull as identical sheep, barely counted before falling asleep. It even makes the astronomers who struggled with their planetary theories uninteresting. It reproduces a selection from their early sketches of the planets, in illustrations of indifferent quality. The most recently known planetary features are reproduced from space pictures in obfuscating black and white.

The book reproduces the portraits of some of the astronomers, sometimes from old engravings or early photographs, sometimes from sketches that are always banal and sometimes plain inept. The astronomers squint out of the page from rheumy eyes; these colourful and inspired men are toned down to a uniform grey, just like the planets as described in this book.

Do not buy it. Especially do not buy it for someone with a developing interest in astronomy unless you want to persuade them to take up something more imaginative than planetary history and science as represented here.

Paul Murdin is the head of astronomy, Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and director of science, British National Space Centre.

The Cambridge Planetary Handbook

Author - Michael E. Bakich
ISBN - 0 521 63280 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 336

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