Skip to main content

The Lost Planets - John Wenz **

Reading the first few lines of the introduction to this book caused a raised eyebrow. In 1600, it tells us, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake 'for his radical views - that not only was the Sun just one of many stars, but those stars likely had planets around them as well.' Unfortunately, this bends the truth. Bruno was burned at the stake for holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith - for conventional heretical beliefs amongst which his ideas on cosmology were trivial. This was an unfortunate start.

What John Wenz gives us is a people-driven story of the apparent early discovery of a number of planets orbiting other stars, made by Peter van de Kamp and his colleagues at Swarthmore College in America, most notably connected to a relatively obscure star called Barnard's star. Wenz is at his best dealing with personal conflict. The book really comes alive in a middle section where van de Kamp's discoveries are starting to be challenged. This chapter works well.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book has two problems. It has a rambling structure, jumping around a lot, and it contains both technical issues and some odd phraseology. Leaving aside the irritation that it mostly doesn't even give metric units as an alternative to US traditional, those issues include a really unhelpful description of parallax, the statement that dark matter was 'inferred from the movement of galactic dust' - it wasn't - and the statement 'where the Sproul refractor was 24 inches, Hale's was 200', as if there was no distinction between refracting and reflecting telescopes.

We get the odd phrasing from page 1 where we encounter 'When we look at it in the night sky, we're seeing the star as it was nearly nine years ago, all thanks to the funny workings of physics.' It's hard to see why something taking time to get from A to B is 'funny workings'. There are more than the usual number of typos - for example 'He personality recruited Kaj Strand' - and there's a tendency for the same information to appear more than once. Sometimes, there is uncomfortably clumsy phrasing, as in 'Space-based astrometry was finally realized with Hipparchos, a European Space Agency mission to do space-based astrometry.' Well, yes, I suppose it would be.

Quite a lot of this has to be put down to a lack of editing on the part of the publisher - all authors generate their share of text that needs improving, but here it hasn't been. The story of the collapse of van de Kamp's discoveries would make a really good article - it's interesting, readable and engaging. But the science content isn't put across particularly well and the rest of the book has too much detail on secondary characters and various other possible planets. Not a great book - and expensive too for such a slim volume.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.

Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…