Excerpt: 'The Planets'

Planets Cover

"Dava Sobel's new collection of essays, The Planets, is delightful and idiosyncratic," says book critic Alan Cheuse in his annual holiday roundup for All Things Considered.

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Excerpt: Model Worlds

My planet fetish began, as best I can recall, in third grade, at age eight—right around the time I learned that Earth had siblings in space, just as I had older brothers in high school and college. The presence of the neighboring worlds was a revelation at once specific and mysterious in 1955, for although each planet bore a name and held a place in the Sun's family, very little was known about any of them. Pluto and Mercury, like Paris and Moscow, only better, beckoned a childish imagination to ultra-exotic utopias.

The few sure facts about the planets suggested fantastic aberrations, ranging from unbearable extremes of temperature to the warping of time. Since Mercury, for example, could circle the Sun in only 88 days, compared to the Earth's 365, then a year on Mercury would whiz by in barely three months, much the way "dog years" packed seven years of animal experience into the dog owner's one, and thereby accounted for the regrettably short lives of pets.

Every planet opened its own realm of possibility, its own version of reality. Venus purportedly hid lush swamps under its perpetual cloud cover, where oceans of oil, or possibly soda water, bathed rain forests filled with yellow and orange plant life. And these opinions issued from serious scientists, not comic books or sensational fiction.

The limitless strangeness of the planets contrasted sharply with their small census. In fact, their nine-ness helped define them as a group. Ordinary entities came in pairs or dozens, or quantities ending in a five or a zero, but planets numbered nine and nine only. Nine, odd as outer space itself, could nevertheless be counted on the fingers. Compared to the chore of memorizing forty-eight state capitals or significant dates in the history of New York City, the planets promised mastery in an evening. Any child who committed the planets' names to memory with the help of an appealing nonsense-sentence mnemonic—"My very educated mother just served us nine pies"—simultaneously gained their proper progression outward from the Sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto.

The manageable sum of planets made them seem collectible, and motivated me to arrange them in a shoe-box diorama for the science fair. I gathered marbles, jacks balls, Ping-Pong balls, and the pink rubber Spaldeens we girls bounced for hours on the sidewalk, then I painted them with tempera, and hung them on pipe cleaners and string. My model (more like a doll house than a scientific demonstration) failed to give any real sense of the planets' relative sizes or the enormous distances between them. By rights I should have used a basketball for Jupiter, to show how it dwarfed all the others, and I should have mounted everything in a giant carton from a washing machine or a refrigerator, the better to approximate the Solar System's grandiose dimensions.

Fortunately my crude diorama, produced with a complete lack of artistic skill, did not kill my beautiful visions of Saturn suspended in the perfect symmetry of its spinning rings, or the mutating patterns on the Martian landscape, which were attributed, in scientific reports of the 1950s, to seasonal cycles of vegetation.

After the science fair, my class staged a planets play. I got the part of "Lonely Star" because the script called for that character to wear a red cape, and I had one, left over from a Halloween costume. As Lonely Star, I soliloquized the Sun's wish for companionship, which the planet-actors granted by joining up with me, each in a speech admitting his own peculiarities. The play's most memorable performances were delivered by "Saturn," who twirled two Hula-hoops while reciting her lines, and "The Earth," plump and self-conscious, yet forced to announce matter-of-factly, "I am twenty-four thousand miles around my middle." Thus was the statistic of our Earth's circumference indelibly impressed upon me. (Note that we always said "the earth," in those days. "The earth" did not become "Earth" until after I came of age and the Moon changed from a nightlight to a destination.)

My role as Lonely Star helped me appreciate the Sun's relationship to the planets as parent and guide. Not for nothing is our part of the universe called the "Solar System," in which each planet's individual makeup and traits are shaped in large measure by proximity to the Sun.

I had omitted the Sun from my diorama because I hadn't understood its power, and besides, it would have posed an impossible problem of scale.* Another reason for leaving out the Sun, and likewise the Moon, was the bright familiarity of both objects, which seemed to render them regular components of the Earth's atmosphere, whereas the planets were glimpsed only occasionally (either before bedtime or in a still-dark, early-morning sky), and therefore more highly prized.

On our class trip to the Hayden Planetarium, we city kids saw an idealized night sky, liberated from the glare of traffic signals and neon lights. We watched the planets chase each other around the heavens of the dome. We tested the relative strength of gravity with trick scales that told how much we'd weigh on Jupiter (four hundred pounds and more for a normal-sized teacher) or Mars (featherweights all). And we gawked at the sight of the fifteen-ton meteorite that had fallen from out of the blue over Oregon's Willamette Valley, posing a threat to human safety that few of us had thought to fear.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Planets by Dava Sobel. Copyright (c) 2005 by Byron Preiss Visual Publications, Inc.

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