By trying to reduce the solar system's most jaw-dropping locations into a shortlist of 50, David Baker and Todd Ratcliff have launched themselves on a truly epic mission. Our celestial backyard is so stuffed full of mind-boggling phenomena that if you want to impress, it is probably unnecessary to employ the phaser-toting aliens so beloved of science fiction. Reality is weird enough.
Any discussion of the solar system's biggest, tallest, fastest, hottest, farthest or heaviest extremes is obliged to include some of the best-known landmarks in the tour. Few readers with even a passing interest in the planets will be surprised to learn that the solar system's tallest mountain is Olympus Mons (on Mars) or that the swirling Great Red Spot visible in Jupiter's cloud tops is the solar system's longest-lived storm. But Baker and Ratcliff manage to put a fresh spin on even these stalwarts of the solar system's extreme A-list. As an example, the departure from big-number comparisons to rescale the Great Red Spot's energy in terms of Hurricane Katrina beautifully illustrates the awesome power of the alien storm.
One might have felt cheated if this book had bypassed some of the well-known highlights of the extreme tourist trail, but it's in the exploration of some of the solar system's more bizarre phenomena that it really thrills.
"It's raining hard" takes on new meaning when discussing the diamond hail on Uranus, while planning for the future on Hyperion (Saturn's tiny potato-shaped moon) turns out to be a nightmare. It tumbles so erratically around its orbit that it is impossible to predict where and when the Sun will rise each day. Snow angels on Mercury seem as likely as a snowball in Hell, given the planet's proximity to the Sun, but there is a possibility that water ice exists in the shadowy craters at the planet's poles. Where conjecture and speculation are employed, they are carefully introduced. Baker and Ratcliff skilfully link current knowledge to the countless outstanding questions and uncertainties in planetary science.
Of course, "extreme" implies a comparison to some more typical, more normal state. In the context of the solar system, this norm is often taken to be our own world, but the authors have balanced their favourite extraterrestrial extremes by highlighting an assortment of home-grown show-stoppers. This hammers the point home that our planet is an integral member of the solar system's oddball family. Alongside its (so far as we know) unique ability to support life, Earthly highlights include the solar system's best surf spots, the most extreme climatic disturbances and the most breathtaking auroral displays. In an extreme solar system, it's good to know that home can be just as exotic as the next world.
Laid out in 50 brief but beautifully illustrated chapters, The 50 Most Extreme Places in Our Solar System is hugely enjoyable. Although better dipped in and out of rather than ploughed through cover to cover, its science is well founded, accessible and informative, making it a great read for the enthusiast, specialist or educator.
The 50 Most Extreme Places in Our Solar System
By David Baker and Todd Ratcliff
Harvard University Press 304pp, £19.95
Published 30 September 2010