Skip to main content

The Planet Factory - Elizabeth Tasker ***

The way this book opens has the feel of an author trying too hard to get her personality across, as popular science books sometimes do. Elizabeth Tasker opens by asking an astrophysicist 'What would make you throw my book out of the window?' and as a reader, I hardly take in the next page and a half wondering why anyone would ask such a question. Then, just as I regain the ability to process what I'm reading, I get 'In 1968, Michael Mayor fell down an ice crevice and almost missed discovering the first planet orbiting another sun'. And I'm thinking 'But no one made such a discovery in 1968', not realising that this statement had nothing to do with his much later work on exoplanets (planets that orbit other stars) but was just a way to try to make the character more interesting.

Thankfully, once we get past the introductory section, Elizabeth Tasker's style settles down in a big way - if anything it goes to the other extreme and becomes distinctly dry, delivering more of a collection of facts than a narrative. However, in terms of content, The Planet Factory can't be faulted. It is excellent, for example, on planetary system formation. We're used to hand waving explanations of planetary formation from a disc of dust and gas, but Tasker shows how there's not long (in planetary timescales) for this to happen, and why it's really distinctly difficult for a cloud of dust grains to do anything more than bounce off each other, rather than clump together to form a planet.

Even in the heavy fact sections there is a tendency to use odd analogies, for example: 'this uncertainty leaves us as much in the dark about the planet's type as would the sex of a foetus with its legs crossed in the womb,' but these become less frequent after a while. Tasker gives us oodles of detail, emphasising how complex the planet formation process is, as new discoveries often make old theories wrong, or at least throw oddities into the mix. As readers, we soon realise that an awful lot is being deduced from a relatively tiny amount of data, so there is a strong whiff of speculation in the air much of the time. This is emphasised when Tasker describes the way that three planets found orbiting Gliese 581 were later thought not to exist - in the case of two of them, it was enough that the star had the equivalent of a strong sunspot to produce the misleading data.

This is the first popular book I've read about the formation of both our solar system and exoplanets that gives a real, gritty, coal-face feel for the complexity of the process involved, how much we know... and how much we don't. To be honest, it's not the most engaging book - I don't think that's Tasker's fault - it's just that as a topic it's rather like geology - probably the hardest of all scientific topics to make interesting to the general reader. It's notable that in the final section, where Tasker takes on whether or not planets (and moons) are correctly placed to be able to provide the essentials for life as we know it, things get more interesting. But if you have an interest in the solar system or planetary formation on a wider scale, and are hazy on the details, it's a must-read.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under