August 16, 2007


Lives of the Planets: A Natural History of the Solar System. By Richard Corfield. Basic Books. $27.50.

      The notion of writing a biography of inanimate (well, mostly inanimate) objects is an outlandish one, and Richard Corfield deserves a great deal of credit for not only tackling the idea but also doing so with great success. Planet by planet, celestial object by celestial object, Corfield explores our solar system in a particularly attractive way. The science here is impeccable, but the stories are so fascinating that the facts are almost beside the point (even though they really are the point). Corfield writes as if wanting to introduce readers to a fascinating group of slightly dotty relatives, each having enough quirks and oddments to be worth…well, a full chapter in a book.

      There is a poetic sensibility to Corfield’s work that removes it immediately from the realm of dry science. Mercury is “the piper at the gates of dawn,” Jupiter “the eye of the universe.” Earth and its moon are “the Wizards of Earthsea,” a perfect description that borrows quite deliberately from Ursula LeGuin’s novel of the same name. In fact, Corfield makes very effective references to a variety of fictional works in order to explain scientific facts. For example, he points out that for many years, “The scientific thinking…suggested that Mercury’s proximity to the sun would make it the mineral treasure house of the solar system. It was an idea that permeated the science fiction of the time, too, as in Isaac Asimov’s classic short story ‘Runaround.’” Then Corfield shows how later scientific research debunked earlier beliefs – and then, as if coming full circle, he explains why it is possible that “when the time comes for human interstellar travel, we will head to Mercury…for the metals necessary to build our starships.”

      This is fascinating material, presented by Corfield as if he has made the personal acquaintance of each part of our solar system and wants to give readers an informal introduction. It’s not just the stuff “out there” that gets this treatment, either – the stuff on Earth gets it, too: “Stonehenge is a Stone Age supercomputer whose read-only memory consists of thirty-five megaliths, each weighing more than twenty-five tons. Its RAM is an enigmatic set of concentric holes in the ground, its monitor is a solitary megalith standing some distance apart from the others, and its hard drive is a 5 trillion-ton sphere that rotates once every twenty-four hours.” Can you think of Stonehenge as just a mysterious collection of rocks after reading this description?

      Corfield, a Visiting Senior Lecturer and Researcher in the Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research at the Open University, carries his stylistic flair to the farthest reaches of our little bit of the universe. His Mars chapter refers to two separate SF works – it is entitled “The Martian Chronicles,” after Ray Bradbury, and has several sections that refer to Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man.” But in many ways his discussions of the less-known planets are the most intriguing of all. “The Harmonies of the Ice Giants: Uranus and Neptune” begins by noting that “the greatest astronomical discovery of the eighteenth century was made by a man whose first love was music,” then regales readers with mysteries: the most varied terrain in the entire solar system is on the Uranian moon Miranda; Uranus has a magnetic field in a strange corkscrew shape, and it spins on its back – the poles get more energy from the sun than the equator does. What wonders are here, and what wondrous descriptions! Although there may be no life as we know it elsewhere in the solar system, Corfield makes the very rocks scattered throughout the sun’s gravity well come alive themselves.

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