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

Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz - Four Way Interview

Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz is Professor of Mammalian Development and Stem Cell Biology at the University of Cambridge, and Bren Professor in Biology and Bioengineering at Caltech. She has published over 150 papers and book chapters in top scientific journals and her work on embryos won the people’s vote for scientific breakthrough of the year in Science magazine.Her new book, co-authored with Roger Highfield, is The Dance of Life: symmetry, cells and how we become human.

Why science?

I fell in love with biology when I was a child because I loved doing experiments and seeing what happened. It was fascinating and enormous fun. I also fell in love with art at the same time. Art and science are both based on experiments and uncovering new paths to understand the world and ourselves. Why do we think the way we think? Where do our feelings come from? Is the 'right' answer always right? Where do we come from? How do parts of our body communicate with each other?  What is the nature of ti…

The Dance of Life - Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz and Roger Highfield ****

There is without doubt a fascination for all of us - even those who can find biology a touch tedious - with the way that a tiny cellular blob develops into the hugely complex thing that is a living organism, especially a human. In this unusual book which I can only describe as a memoir of science, Magalena Zernicka-Goetz, assisted by the Science Museum's Roger Highfield, tells the story of her own career and discoveries.

At the heart of the book, and Zernicka-Goetz's work, is symmetry breaking, a topic very familiar to readers of popular physics titles, but perhaps less so in popular biology. The first real breakthrough from her lab was the discovery of the way that a mouse egg's first division was already asymmetrical - the two new cells were not identical, not equally likely to become embryo and support structure as had always been thought.  As the book progresses, throughout the process of development we see how different symmetries are broken, with a particular focus on…

Meera Senthilingam - Four Way Interview

Meera Senthilingam is currently Content Lead at health start-up Your,MD and was formerly International Health Editor at CNN. She is a journalist, author and public health researcher and has worked with multiple media outlets, such as the BBC, as well as academic institutions, including the LSHTM and Wellcome Trust. She has Masters Degrees in Science Communication and the Control of Infectious Diseases and her interests lie in communicating global health issues to the general public through journalism and working with global health programmes. Her academic research to date has focused on tuberculosis, particularly the burden of drug-resistant tuberculosis and insights into the attitudes and behaviours of the people most affected. Her new book is Outbreaks and Epidemics: battling infection from measles to coronavirus.

Why science?

I have always found science fascinating and have always had a strong passion for it. My friends in high school used to find it amusing to introduce me to people…