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'Planets' explores myth, fact

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Dava Sobel's The Planets could quite accurately be called a roll call of the solar system. It tackles its subjects with enthusiasm (sometimes too much enthusiasm), marching from Mercury to Pluto and beyond.

At times lyrical, at times somber, Sobel delivers the bare facts about the planets, often noting the dissonance between astrology's romance and astronomy's reality.

Venus, for example, is named after the love goddess but is a vista of volcanoes and acid air cooking along at a hellish 800 degrees.

Sobel's essays are mostly personal ones, a turn from the journalistic perch of her previous best sellers Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time and Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love.

Readers who appreciated Sobel's rich writing in Galileo's Daughter also will enjoy The Planets.

Those looking for a science-first disquisition on Earth and its neighbors might be disappointed by moments of schmaltz.

The opening of the chapter on the moon (not a planet but the leftovers of one), for example, is a short soliloquy that likens one of her friends to a moon goddess.

And that's a shame, because the simple truth about planets like Jupiter is mind-bending enough, as Sobel shows in an affecting historical meditation on that planet.

She traces Galileo's discovery of Jupiter's moons in 1610 and the far more recent discoveries made there by his namesake, the Galileo spacecraft.

Jupiter has no surface; it's a gas envelope swirling with counter-directional weather bands that compresses itself into liquid around a solid core of hydrogen, the lightest element.

Sobel mentions at both the book's outset and conclusion that planetary science is enjoying a boom. Rovers are on Mars, an orbiter is exploring Saturn and, for the first time, a probe has landed on Saturn's moon Titan.

Keeping the spotlight on all that science might have rewarded readers at least as much as personal takes on planets.

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