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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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