Skip to main content

Saturn – William Sheehan ****

This book marks something of a milestone in my reviewing career: it’s the first time I’ve seen an excerpt from one of my reviews printed on the back cover. It comes from my review of Sheehan’s previous book, on Mercury, which I said ‘easily convinced me the Solar System’s 'least interesting' planet is still a pretty fascinating place.’ That wasn’t an easy task for the author, given Mercury’s unspectacular appearance and reputation – but Saturn is a different matter. With its iconic rings, easily visible through a small telescope, it’s the favourite planet of many amateur astronomers. For space scientists, too, it’s a prime target – given that two of its moons, Titan and Enceladus, look like the kind of places we might find alien life. So Sheehan’s challenge this time wasn’t to find enough material to fill 200 pages, but to distil a potentially huge subject down to that size.

He meets this challenge just as successfully as the previous one – but not quite in the way I was expecting. Instead of diving straight into the latest discoveries, the first third of the book – chapters 1 and 2 – consists of a leisurely stroll through the pre-space-age history of the subject, from ancient times to the middle of the 20th century. I enjoyed this more than I expected to, because it brought out just how slowly and painstakingly our understanding has been built up. One surprising revelation comes right at the start. For thousands of years, throughout the pre-telescopic era, it was Saturn – not Mercury – that had the reputation of ‘least interesting planet’. It’s the faintest of the ones that have been known since ancient times, and the one that changes position most sluggishly relative to the background stars. In fact Saturn’s reputation as the Solar System’s most spectacular planet is a hard-earned one. Even after its rings and moons were revealed by early telescopes, it was a long and laborious process to uncover their true nature, as astronomers’ instruments – and their understanding of physical laws – slowly improved over the course of centuries.

What I was really expecting to find in a book like this comes in the next two chapters – the middle third – with an in-depth look at the current scientific understanding of the planet and its rings. This perspective continues in the final third, with three shorter chapters on the Cassini mission, Saturn’s moons and the Saturn system as seen by amateur astronomers. The whole book is profusely illustrated – there must be at least a hundred images altogether, many in colour – and some of them are truly breathtaking.

All in all, I can recommend this book just as heartily as the Mercury one. This time, I didn’t need convincing that the subject was an interesting one – but I was still impressed by the way Sheehan manages to lay out all the important facts in such a methodical and unrushed way.

Paperback:   
Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

The Ascent of Gravity - Marcus Chown ****

Marcus Chown is one of the UK's best writers on physics and astronomy - it's excellent to see him back on what he does best. Here we discover our gradual approach to understanding the nature of gravity - the 'ascent' of the title - which, though perhaps slightly overblown in the words 'the force that explains everything' (quantum physics does quite a lot too, for example), certainly makes us aware of the importance of this weakest of fundamental forces. Chown's approach to gravity is a game of three halves, as they say, broadly covering Newton, Einstein and where we go from general relativity.
As far as the first two sections go, with the exception of the 2015 gravitational waves detection, there's not much that's actually new - if you want a popular science exploration of these aspects of the topic with more depth see this reviewer's Gravity - but no one has covered the topic with such a light touch and joie de vivre as Chown. 
Although Chown doe…