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Friday, 20 November 2020

The Planets

Andrew Cohen with Brian Cox
The Planets (5*)

This is a book packed with incredible, fascinating detail which Mrs. D. has thoroughly enjoyed being told about, especially when watching television, reading a book of her own or settling down to go to sleep.

My knowledge of the solar system had changed little since the nineteen-sixties. It was based on the moon landings, a 1957 set of Brooke Bond tea cards, the nineteen-sixties encyclopaedia Knowledge which came out in weekly parts, and my dad’s Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia from the nineteen-twenties. These two tea cards just about sum it up.

I mentioned this at home, and for my birthday there appeared a brand new copy of The Planets by Andrew Cohen with Brian Cox, published in 2019 to accompany the television series of the same name. Professor Cox presented the series: it gave him an excuse to pose in all sorts of weird and wonderful locations, such as the Wadi Rum in Jordan, and pretend he was on the surface of other worlds. He is credited with just one of the six sections of the book. The others are by Andrew Cohen, the executive producer of the series.

It is very readable and accessible. Perhaps only once or twice did I feel bogged down in too much information, but that may have been because I was rushing to get to the next astonishing section. Let me pick just a few of the snippets Mrs. D. so much appreciated hearing about, to try on your loved ones in deciding whether or not to get the book yourself.  

Olympus Mons

1) There are some extraordinary mountains elsewhere in the Solar System. Olympus Mons on Mars, a volcano of 21,000 metres, is around two and a half times the height of Mount Everest. It looks a bit like, well, yes, it does. 

Artist’s impression of the Curiosity sky crane

2) Staying on Mars, the Curiosity landing vehicle has provided us with many high quality images of the surface. It was so heavy (998kg or around a ton) that to have dropped it on to the surface in the usual way could have damaged it beyond repair. It was therefore lowered gently at a rate of one metre per second from a “sky crane” hovering twenty metres above the surface. The sky crane then flew off so as not to fall on the landing vehicle. How on earth did they think of that, and how did they get it to work?

Jupiter

3) The planetary orbits have not always been as they are now. It is thought that as the Solar System was forming, four and a half billion years ago, Jupiter moved closer to the sun and then back out again (known as the grand tack hypothesis), taking with it thousands upon thousands of blocks of rocks and ice to form the asteroid belt. This reduced the amount of material available for the inner planets to form, which is why Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are much smaller than Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Artist's impression of the surface of Titan

4) The time-scales are unimaginable. Over the next five billion years, the Sun will grow hotter and expand to engulf Mercury and Venus, although the lifeless, burnt-out Earth may just escape this fate. At the same time, the outer planets will begin to warm. Worlds such as Titan, a moon of Saturn where lakes and rivers of methane run through mountains of ice, will thaw to have oceans of liquid water full of complex organic chemicals, just the kind of place where life might originate all over again.  

Pluto

5) Pluto, which was only discovered in 1930 and appears in the Brooke Bond tea cards as the ninth planet, is no longer classified as a planet …

[note: at this point Mrs. D. snatched the book from Tasker’s grasp and beat him about the head with it].


The NASA images are in the public domain.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

37 comments:

  1. This is great fun to read. The blog. Don't know about the book. I hope you blessed Mrs D with a reading while she was counting stitches, too. That's always a nice touch.

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    1. Thank you. She is getting her own back, reading The Body by Bill Bryson: "did you know that each person produces two and a half pints of saliva per day"?

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  2. My kind of book! I have been fascinated by all things space (not just human spaceflight) for decades, and love watching documentaries on TV or reading books about it. I have not come across "The Planets" as a TV series, it has probably not been bought (yet?) by any of the German TV stations I receive. Do you happen to know whether it is available on Netflix?

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    1. I think you'd love the TV series. I did the parts I've seen (despite making fun of it, above). The images are stunning and the whole thing absolutely mind boggling. Brian Cox is OK but some people do find him irritating (pop star become professor of physics). The book is just as astonishing and complements the series in providing more detail with, rightly, fewer images. The images above are mainly from the NASA sites (therefore public domain).
      I don't think the series is on Netflix but it is on BBC iPlayer if you can get that. If not there is a trailer on YouTube: https://youtu.be/dxMohurmlMU
      and I also found this which gives a flavour: https://youtu.be/oHpxCGeXU3c

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  3. I enjoyed the TV series and found Prof Cox's style made it easy to grasp the more difficult concepts.
    My dad had a passion for astronomy and had several books on the subject. A bit over my head in those days. I remember when he bought a telescope and we would jostle each other out in the back garden on a cold, starry night, waiting for our turn to take a look.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the TV version too. I like the idea of a telescope but it's the kind of thing I would play with for a few weeks after which it would become an expensive unused item.

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    1. It may be a planet, after all: https://science.howstuffworks.com/pluto-is-it-planet-after-all.htm

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  5. This made me laugh Tasker - every married couple has been there, done that and got the T shirt. My son is greatly interested in everything to do with the night sky and Astronomy and quite knowledgeable. Do you think it might be a possible Christmas present for him?

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    1. It was a great book to update my outdated knowledge but might be too simple for an expert.
      So pleased to see you back. Take care.

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  6. Although I rarely devote the time to it, the study of the planets and space has always fascinated me and even more as I get older. It amazes me how much is constantly being discovered about the subject as better equipment is being designed every day to use in studying space and the planets. And that is aside from the fact that we have a permanent space station with people living on it and learning more about many aspects of space. It boggles the mind to think how little we know compared to what must be out there to learn!

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    1. I think that sums up my own feelings exactly. It is truly mind boggling and we are beginning to learn as much about some of the planets orbiting other suns as we not so long ago knew about our own. The book touches on some of the methods and techniques being used to discover these things. Absolutely fascinating.

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    2. I forgot to give you this link for Astronomy Picture of the Day from Nasa. https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html

      You may have seen it, if not you might like it. ; )

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    3. Thanks. I didn't know. I bet it could be added in the sidebar.

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  7. I purchased a copy of The Planets weeks ago as a Christmas present for my one surviving brother in London. As a child he enjoyed watching Carl Sagan's TV series *Cosmos*. He would imitate (admiringly) Sagan's voice when he looked up at the stars from our garden.

    The images here of Jupiter and Pluto are iconic. They remind me of a character Pieter Rousseau in Arthur C Clarke's novel, Rendezvous with Rama 1973).
    Pieter is glad he grew up in Colorado where the night sky is clear. He acquired his first telescope at the age of six and collected lenses. Rama is a giant cylinder orbiting Jupiter, a colossal piece of engineering designed by aliens.

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    1. If your brother's knowledge is as out of date as mine then he is in for a treat. Are you going to be able to read it yourself without creasing the spine or leaving any other trace such as piccalilli stains and spat out food particles?
      The images are from the NASA sites - worth a look. I know they've altered the colours in some cases but many of the images are beautiful.
      I should have added in the first paragraph that I read my way through the local library collection of Clarke, Asimov, Wyndham, Charles Chilton, etc, before I stopped reading anything at about the age of 16.

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    2. As a point of honour I never read a book I give as a present.
      The trick is to wrap it up fast in festive paper.
      I shall buy a copy Of The Planets for myself when the shops reopen.
      Interesting that you stopped reading at 16 after having binged on exciting fiction like Clarke, Asimov, Wyndham. I shall look up Chilton.
      I returned to science fiction after watching a vlogger, Kalanadi, aka Rachel, who persuaded me to buy Hyperion by Dan Simmonds,
      The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, and A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. Ted Chiang and Ted Liu I found myself.

      I picked up an old pocket paperback of The Dark Design by Philip Jose Farmer. A few pages in feels like I'm on ayahuasca, a plant I regard as demonic. Graham Hancock talks about it on YouTube.

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    3. Correction, Ken Liu.
      There are two story collections of Chinese sci-fi, which I shall read during lock-down.

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  8. I have never seen that image of Olympus Mons on Mars. As you suggest, I have seen very similar images though.

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    1. How often do you see these very similar images?

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  9. If Mrs Dunham is battering you with heavy books, you may need help. Visit https://mensadviceline.org.uk/ It worked for me when Mrs Pudding started thrashing me with a leather horse whip. As for "The Planets", it's not the kind of book that would grab me. I find Professor Brian Cox exceedingly tiresome but that's just me. I am interested in other things.

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    1. Did they advise you to stop asking Mrs Pudding to thrash you with a leather horse whip?

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    2. No but they advised me to buy her a leather corset and thigh-length patent leather boots/

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  10. Yeah, as you mentioned in your comment above, I think Pluto is back to planetary status. I love the tea cards! That pretty much sums up my knowledge of the solar system as well. (Except the "minor planets" -- what on earth are those?!)

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    1. My mum collected those tea cards for me for months until we had them all to fill up the album supplied - well not those exact ones, they are on the internet. How I'd love to have my original ones. The "minor planets" shown on the tea card are the asteroid belt but it also seems to be used as a pseudonym for dwarf planets. There are tens of them right out near Pluto including one called Eris which is as big as Pluto, and others such as Sedna and Makemake which are almost as big. Should they all be planets too?

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  11. While the book does sound fascinating, Mrs. D has my sympathy (and I thoroughly approve of her reciprocal readings from Bryson's body book). My DH used to (operative words) constantly interrupt my reading (and seemingly always at a significant point in my books) by reading to me--in excruciating detail--stories from his various car enthusiast sites/magazines. He discovered that I will no longer stay in a room with him when he is on his laptop and/or reading a car magazine. I now listen to more audio-books--in another room--while wearing a noise canceling headset. He has no idea the extent to which these moves are keeping him from the receiving end of bodily harm. The Weaver knows! :)

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    1. Oh dear! Sounds like you are on the verge of callng in the United Nations peacekeeping troops.

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    2. This is funny, Mary.
      I have never read a car magazine in my life.
      When details are excruciating you lose the will to live.

      A friend called me up with the latest on her manipulative mother and cruel brother. The brother is on cocaine.
      After 20 minutes nonstop I told her to shut up, and reminded her that woman in the Third World have to walk miles to get water, often unclean water.

      She rang me back, *Don't ever tell me to shut up again!*
      I told her I wouldn't as long as I never had to hear about her worthless family again. Car magazines don't seem so bad.

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  12. My comment disappeared!

    I was so amused by your post that I almost forgot what the book you were commenting on was. I The only thing I can recall from my very young childhood which sometimes covered things like that was the centre-fold of The Eagle.

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    1. I didn't read the Eagle but had three Eagle Annuals and yes now you mention it there was quite a bit of space stuff in there. I remember an article about the first 7 Mercury astronauts, all of whom I think got a launch.

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    2. The Eagle picked up on the flying saucer craze from America.
      There was a wee green man in his own spinning saucer. Dan Dare.
      My older brother kept his Eagles in a cardboard box.
      Tasker remembering the Mercury astronauts is impressive.

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    3. The Mekon was the wee green being.

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    4. The Mekon seemed to float about defying gravity. I didn't like it. I think the 7 spacemen article was probably in Eagle Annual 9.

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  13. I enjoyed your snippets. However timing may have been the problem with Mrs D, especially if she was trying to read something herself. I do hope the bruises have faded!!

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    1. It is just that when you read something so astonishing you want to tell everyone else straight away.

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  14. Our demoted Pluto is lovely to look at. And the Olympus Mons looks HUGE. :)

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    1. Quite a lot of other worlds look lovely. The book says of Olympus Mons, that if you stood on the surface of Mars you would not be be able to see the full width of the slopes because they would be hidden by curvature of the planet.

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