October 27, 2016
(++++) REMARKABLE REALITIES
Mission to Pluto: The First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt. By Mary Kay Carson. Photographs by Tom Uhlman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
Friends: True Stories of Extraordinary Animal Friendships. By Catherine Thommesh. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $10.99.
The excellent “Scientists in the Field” series has never gone so far into the field as it does in Mission to Pluto. Of course, the scientists themselves do not go to the dwarf planet at the outer limits of our solar system – or to the ninth planet, for those who insist that Pluto deserves to be considered a full-fledged planet. Actually, the discussion of Pluto’s status is one element quite clearly presented in Mary Kay Carson’s very well-written book, in which the excitement of science comes through with particular clarity – thanks in part to Tom Uhlman’s photographs, which show the sheer joy on the researchers’ faces as revelation after revelation streams back to Earth from the enormously distant New Horizons spacecraft. Solar distances are well-nigh incomprehensible in human terms, and young readers will marvel – as will adults – at contemplating just how far away Pluto is: it took New Horizons nine-and-a-half years to reach it. Practically everything about the mission involved a “first” of some sort – beyond it being the first mission to Pluto. Pluto is now considered a binary object (which, by the by, is why it is no longer deemed a planet: it and its largest moon, Charon, are essentially paired); this mission was the first ever to such an object. It was the first to the Kuiper belt, a vast region at the edge of the solar system in which the first object ever discovered was Pluto itself. The mission was the first to discover Pluto’s fourth moon, Kerberos – and, later, the first to find its fifth moon, Styx. There is so much here that is genuinely new, so great a sense of really (not in science fiction) going where no one, no human-made object, has gone before, that Mission to Pluto is a can’t-put-it-down read akin to an exciting novel. The mission itself is continuing today, after more than a decade, but Carson’s compression of it makes it seem real and visceral in a way that the vast time spans it requires cannot. In addition, Carson’s portrait of principal investigator Alan Stern humanizes the science and the exploration wonderfully: Stern’s enthusiasm, which borders on fanatical devotion to space exploration, is infectious, and his insights, sprinkled throughout the book, make this a story of people and dreams as much as one of scientific equipment and analysis. Just reading how Stern chose the name New Horizons for the mission and spacecraft will help readers understand science to be as human as it is rarefied. There is considerable pure science here as well: a page showing how the Crab Nebula looks when observed using seven different instruments that detect seven different wavelengths of light is one fascination among many. By the time Stern says of New Horizons that, after its flyby of Pluto, “We’re going exploring into the Kuiper belt,” readers will include themselves in that we and will be quite ready to learn what new discoveries the spacecraft will make as it continues outward, ever outward, from Earth. Those discoveries, which will likely be reported as minor news items amid the constant flood of more-immediate concerns on our planet, will seem all the more important to readers of Mission to Pluto – and all the more indicative of humanity’s capabilities – than the umpteenth iteration of nonsense news involving celebrities, sports figures, politics and other everyday dross.
To be sure, there are wonderful stories on Earth as well as in space, even if they tend to be under-reported. The Internet is a notable breeding ground for positive as well as negative material, with many of the positives involving animals – although it can be virtually impossible to determine whether pictures and videos featuring animal behavior have been artificially created or enhanced. That makes books such as Catherine Thommesh’s Friends all the more valuable, since for all their cuddlesome cuteness – which is available online in abundance – the animals featured here are real and their relationships really happened. Originally published in 2011 and now available in paperback, Friends is essentially a picture book: the text appearing on pages opposite the ones showing full-page photos of the animals is minimal. Each page of writing intends to draw an amusingly heartfelt lesson from the animals shown – for instance, “No matter/ who has/ a snout/ or a beak,/ connecting with friends/ is something friends seek.” This bit of doggerel appears opposite a photo of an ostrich and giraffe literally getting their heads together at a Serengeti exhibit in a Florida theme park. The brief explanation of the relationship, offered beneath the lines of poetry, is that a young giraffe once came close to an old ostrich and licked it – and the ostrich, instead of running away, licked back – and now the two continue to interact periodically. The stories here are varied and fascinating. At an animal rescue home in England, an injured basset hound was sprawled on a couch in front of a TV one day when a tawny owl flew over to the dog and cuddled up – and the two continued snuggling on the couch on a regular basis for more than five years. In the wilds of Manitoba, Canada, a 1200-pound polar bear approached some chained Eskimo sled dogs – and observers expected one or more dogs to become the bear’s meal. Instead, the bear nudged one of the dogs and the two animals wrestled and played all evening – a performance repeated for 10 days before the bear disappeared as mysteriously as it had appeared. In an Indonesian zoo, a baby orangutan and baby Sumatran tiger – natural enemies in the wild – started grooming each other one day, for no known reason, and continued playing together for months until attendants felt they had to separate them for the orangutan’s safety. Friends is a heartwarming book whose ultimate message, although never explicitly stated by Thommesh, is that the need for comfort and companionship can sometimes transcend species differences, even to the point of temporarily short-circuiting instinctive predator-prey relationships. Of course, the word sometimes is key. But it is nice to know that there are occasional real-world instances in which the lion really does lie down with the lamb – or, in this case, with the piglet, as shown in one of the many adorable photos that are this book’s primary attraction.