Skip to main content

A History of the Solar System - Claudio Vita-Finzi ***

It was interesting to read this book straight after Ali Almossawi's Bad Choices. The topics may be totally different, but they are both small books - in this case a mere 100 pages - at high prices for their size. But there the similarity ends. Where the other title conceals a very small amount of content, Claudio Vita-Finzi packs in a huge amount of information on our best understanding (c 2016) of how the solar system came into being, the constitution of its components, where it extends to and far more. But that packing comes at a price, which I'll return to.

I wasn't clear on first seeing the book if the 'history' in the title referred to a sweep through historical views or what has happened to the solar system through time. In practice it does both, but there's relatively little on early ideas, concentrating mostly on our best present theories. It might be a surprise how fuzzy some of those theories are. For example, we still aren't anywhere near certain how the Earth/Moon system formed - and where I thought it was now clear that Earth's water didn't come from comets, as the hydrogen/deuterium ratio is very different, it turns out that this isn't true of all comets... so maybe some of it came from comets after all.

I'd say the ideal use for this book is as an information resource for a student starting a degree in astronomy or a writer wanting some pointers on the solar system. It's a great fact book. Sadly, what it doesn't manage to do is be a good introduction for the general reader. Vita-Finzi packs in so much by making sentence after sentence pure fact statements - almost bullet points - there is very little narrative flow, making the book no easy read.

It doesn't help the readability that the publisher Springer has a weird publication style where each chapter is treated like an academic paper with an abstract, a DOI number and separate references. Bearing in mind an abstract is supposed to be, erm, abstracted, where do they think it's going to go? And those references are particularly obtrusive, both because they are cited with inline numbering like [42] which really breaks the flow of the text and also because, particularly puzzlingly, those numbers seem to be picked at random - in a chapter I just picked at random, the first reference was number 13, followed by number 41.

The slim volume is printed on expensive glossy paper, which means that the colour images could be high quality, though they are often too small to really impress. Nonetheless, apart from reproducing the common repeated misleading assertion that Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for saying there were many other worlds revolving around other suns (see this post for detailed reasons why this is incorrect), there is a huge amount of useful information in this book that would benefit anyone who needed more detail than is available in a typical popular science title.


Paperback:  

Kindle 

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Mercury - William Sheehan ****

Driving to work one morning several years ago, I spotted a tiny white dot close to the rising sun. ‘That’s Venus,’ I said to myself. Almost immediately I saw another, much brighter dot a few degrees away. ‘No, that’s Venus – the first one must be, um ... Mercury.’ Even with a lifelong interest in astronomy, I always manage to forget Mercury.

With eight planets in the Solar System, one of them has to be the least interesting – and Mercury got the short straw. That’s a relative statement, though, and a diligent author could still dig up enough fascinating facts about that tiny dot by the Sun to fill a short book. William Sheehan has done a brilliant job of doing just that.

One of the reasons Mercury is so easy to forget is that it’s almost impossible to get a good view of it from Earth. Even after the invention of the telescope, which turned planets like Mars and Jupiter into explorable worlds, Mercury remained a mystery – and the subject of some pretty wild speculations. In 1686, for exa…

Everything You Know About Planet Earth is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

This is the latest of a series of 'Everything You Know About... is Wrong' books from Matt Brown. Although I always feel slightly hard done by as a result of the assertion in the title, as there are certainly things here I know that aren't wrong (I mean, come on, the first corrected piece of 'knowledge' is that 'The Earth is only 6,000 years old' and I can't imagine many readers will 'know' that), it's a handy format to provide what are often surprisingly little snippets of information that are very handy for 'did you know' conversations down the pub (or showing up your parents if you're a younger reader).

Some of the incorrect statements that head each article are well-covered, if often still believed (for example, people thought that world was flat before Columbus), some are a little tricksy in the wording (such as seas have to wash up against land) and some are just pleasantly surprising (countering the idea that gold is a rar…