May 18, 2017


Seven Wonders of the Solar System. By David A. Aguilar. Viking. $18.99.

Tornadoes. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.

     Imagine a book that actually takes young readers to the far reaches of the solar system to observe some of the marvels in Earth’s immediate cosmic neighborhood. There is no such thing, of course, but Seven Wonders of the Solar System represents an excellent approximation, using scientific information from the Smithsonian Institution and fine writing and illustration by David A. Aguilar to invite readers to participate in space exploration in a way that few, if any, will ever be able to do physically. The “seven wonders” notion is a clever approach, based on the ancient Seven Wonders of the World, which Aguilar explains at the book’s start – also discussing how six of the seven have long since disappeared (only the pyramid of Khufu in Egypt remains). After this introduction, it is on to Mars, site of a volcano so huge that “if you stood on the surface of Olympus Mons, you could not see it as a mountain: both the top and the bottom would be hidden by the curved horizon of Mars.” Aguilar soon goes on to explain the ancient history of Mars, where “lava flowed down the sides of these volcanoes like rust-tinged honey” and greenhouse-gas accumulation temporarily caused Mars to warm up – after which, over millions of years, Mars became the planetwide desert we believe it to be today. After further discussion, Aguilar takes readers farther into space, to the Jovian moon called Europa, which just may have the necessary ingredients to harbor life. This leads to an excellent discussion of what those ingredients are, and of why water – which is crucial to all life as we know it – may still be on Europa despite its vast distance from the sun: “[L]ike two kids pulling on either end of a rope, Jupiter and Europa are in a constant gravitational tug-of-war. …To make things even more difficult, gravitational fields generated by Jupiter’s other moons Ganymede and Io also pull on Europa, causing large tidal fluctuations that produce huge amounts of internal heat. This is why Europa’s oceans remain liquid and do not freeze.” The clarity and fascination of this and Aguilar’s other explanations are intended for readers ages 10 and up – but even adults will learn quite a bit from this excellently researched, clearly presented and beautifully illustrated book. Saturn’s rings are the third “wonder” explored here, followed by “Titan, the largest and most intriguing moon of Saturn, [which] is bigger than the planet Mercury.” The fifth “wonder” is the distant dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon, which look absolutely amazing as portrayed here. The sixth is something really strange and very much in the forefront of current astronomical exploration: Planet Nine, “a world so dark and distant, it would be easy to miss,” and one that may or may not exist – here Aguilar explains the evidence suggesting it is out there “at a distance of six hundred times farther away than the Earth is from the sun” and “fifteen times farther away from Earth than Pluto is.” What could possibly be a seventh “wonder” after that? Aguilar’s answer: our own Earth and Moon, whose special nature Aguilar explains by relating our familiar “neighborhood” to those explored earlier in the book. Seven Wonders of the Solar System is so well-done that readers may wish there were more than seven wonders – and of course there are, as Aguilar explains. He gives a few additional examples near the back of the book, then says that they “would have to be visited on future trips.” Readers enchanted by this book – and it does a remarkable job of making science and space exploration enchanting – will likely hope that Aguilar will return in the future with a guidebook to additional wonders. While they are waiting, one way they can pass the time is by doing something that Aguilar himself did and that he explains how kids can do on their own: make a model of Mars’ Olympus Mons. Talk about hands-on science: here is a project with “materials [that] are simple, inexpensive, and easy to find,” but that will introduce interested readers not only to model-making like Aguilar’s but also to “imagination, of course!” And that will ultimately take young readers – some of them, although not all – outward to observe the wonders of our solar system for themselves.

     Seymour Simon’s Tornadoes, like so many of his many, many other books (more than 300 in all!), is written for younger readers – ages 6-10 rather than 10 and up. But Simon’s science is as well-considered and well-researched as that of Aguilar, and Tornadoes shows that for all the marvels out in space, there are plenty of amazing things right here on Earth as well. Tornadoes originally dates to 1999 and has now been updated and re-released, and it is every bit as timely as when it originally appeared – and contains new material to go with the outstanding (often beautiful, often scary) photographs. Simon does his usual first-rate job of making a phenomenon intelligible and then explaining how it comes to be: a picture superimposing a coil on a thunderstorm illustrates the way in which downdrafts and updrafts in thunderstorms “continue feeding warm humid air into the spreading thunderhead cloud” in a way that can lead to a tornado’s birth. He discusses supercells, which can form from smaller storms, and shows how they can lead to tornadoes – most often between April and June in the central U.S. region known as “tornado alley,” although tornadoes can and do occur elsewhere and at other times of the year. Simon makes the power of these hyper-dangerous storms clear both through pictures and with words: “One monster tornado that touched down in Illinois in 1990 lifted a twenty-ton trailer truck from a highway and bounced it up and down like a ball before depositing it in a field eleven hundred feet away.” Simon talks about single tornadoes and multiple ones produced by the same storm, and discusses the EF scale for rating tornadoes – explaining that fewer than one tornado in 100 is an EF-5, the strongest and most dangerous type, and only two of every 100 are almost-as-deadly EF-4s. And he provides age-appropriate instructions on staying safe in case a tornado is thought to be forming, including some information that parents as well as kids will definitely want to have. For example: “Getting into a bathtub and putting a couch cushion over you helps protect you on all sides. Bathtubs are usually solidly anchored to the ground and sometimes are the only things left in place after a tornado hits.” Tornadoes, like other Simon books about natural disasters, manages to instill tremendous respect for the phenomenon – and a certain amount of well-placed fear – without terrifying young readers to such a point that they will be frightened every time a thunderstorm occurs. Simon, who is now 85 years old, has lost none of his ability to communicate with accuracy and clarity – or, as is the case with Tornadoes, to update earlier works while retaining their fine narrative pace and scientific quality.

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