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LIVES OF THE PLANETS by Richard Corfield


A Natural History of the Solar System

by Richard Corfield

Pub Date: July 9th, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-465-01403-3
Publisher: Basic

An overview of the solar system, with an emphasis on what we’ve learned from robotic probes and landers.

Corfield (Astronomy/Open Univ.; The Silent Landscape, 2004, etc.) combines several different approaches here: a guide to the planets, a history of astronomy and a look inside the space programs of various countries. This produces some interesting juxtapositions. In the chapter on the Sun, the focus is first on Stonehenge, now known to be a prehistoric astronomical computer; then it shifts to the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram used to classify stars by their luminosity and color; then to Galileo’s work on sunspots; and then to the effect of sunspot cycles on terrestrial climate cycles. At each step, the author applies a variety of scientific insights into the current understanding of the star that dominates our daytime sky. Corfield is particularly good on the history of the space programs, giving full due to the achievements of the Soviets on Venus, which we now know to be a hellishly hot planet with a corrosive atmosphere rather than the near twin to Earth generations of astronomers thought it must be. Mars, perhaps the most fully explored of the planets, receives ample treatment. As the narrative approaches the outer planets, data becomes sparser and the chapters shorter. The moons of Jupiter get closer attention as possible abodes of life, and the author duly emphasizes the surprising diversity of planets and satellites, which have fewer family resemblances than one might expect from a group of objects that originated at much the same time from the same basic clump of raw material. Corfield stumbles occasionally when commenting on fields outside astronomy, particularly paleontology. Nonetheless, this is a well-crafted survey of a dauntingly broad body of material.

Good reading for astronomy buffs.