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

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…