Book Review: Worlds Fantastic, Worlds Familiar:  A Guided Tour of the Solar System

Bonnie J. Buratti Worlds Fantastic, Worlds Familiar:  A Guided Tour of the Solar System (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp. x, 239, ISBN: 9781107152748

This book is a delight, hopefully for the professional scientist as well as for the general reader for whom it was primarily written.  The author’s aim is to bring home to her readers that science is anything but ‘dry,’ both in its doing and, spectacularly, in its findings.  Indeed, science ‘is an endeavor of creative thought and activity…propelled by speculation, leaps of faith, doubt, and disagreement.’  As for its findings, she takes us on a tour of the inner Solar System and then works outward.  ‘Planetary science covers the origins of planets and life, the structure and evolution of planets, moons, and all the small stuff like comets, asteroids, and dust that is out there.’  Her tour takes in the contributions of physics, astronomy, geology, chemistry and biology, and the engineering that enables space exploration.  Her explanations of the techniques of astronomical research are particularly satisfying.

Buratti is a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech.  Her degrees are from MIT and Cornell.  She is currently serving on the Cassini and New Horizons teams and is the U.S. Project Scientist for Rosetta.  In recognition of her work, the International Astronomical Union named asteroid 90502 ‘Buratti.’

She focuses, in some ten chapters and a glossary (with a section of sixteen pages of colored photographs, as well as numerous well-chosen black-and-white illustrations), on the planets and other celestial objects she has worked on, moving from Mercury, Venus, and Mars, past comets and asteroids and the moons of the giant planets, to Pluto, and on to exoplanets.  Building on the theme of comparing what we see on earth (that is, the familiar) with what exists celestially (the fantastic), she interweaves her explorations with both personal accounts not just of her professional involvement and contributions, but, touchingly, of her own first encounters with these objects in space and with historical recountings of man’s discovery of them.  Indeed, her accounts of both early theorizing (that is, mostly from the Renaissance on) and contemporary explorations are so thorough, with specific names and dates, that this book could well serve as a history primer of planetary discoveries.

Thus, we see the very young Bonnie ‘standing alone in the middle of a corn field’ near her family home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, comparing the night sky to a map she had cut out of the local newspaper: ‘I felt so small as I stood where the soft cusp of the field gave way to the harsh vastness of space,’ but then she saw Mercury just where it was supposed to be.  A young triumph.  We are then led through the history of attempts, over the centuries, to come to grips with the reality of the solar system by plotting Mercury’s orbit:  in the late seventeenth century, a first successful plotting of its passage past the sun was used to confirm Galileo’s heliocentric theory and, in the twentieth, to underpin Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

We are reminded of how ‘almost indistinguishable’ the environment of Death Valley and surrounding areas of southern California is to the terrain of Mars: ‘Vast ranges of sanded plains greet jagged mountains and dry lake beds.’  Indeed, so similar that nineteenth-century astronomers, such as the very Boston Brahmin, Percival Lowell, made much of Mars’ ‘canals’ and ‘oases’ and twentieth-century science fiction writers such as Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein populated the planet with human-like beings.  Rather more realistically, engineers used the area to test the Mars rover.  Still, as Buratti eloquently describes, there are Martian dust storms (‘which dwarf anything on Earth’) and massive volcanoes (again, many times the size of any volcano on Earth) and floodplains sculptured on the surface of the planet, revealing a Mars that ‘had once been much wetter, and possibly warmer…there is teasing evidence that it may harbor extremophiles or other primitive life forms.’

We are, similarly, introduced to sulfur-rich volcanoes and lakes on Io, one of massive Jupiter’s four moons, to huge ice plumes and tar-like deposits on Saturn’s moons (with an especially detailed description of the Iapetus flyby in 2007, including Arthur C. Clarke’s praise), to hydrocarbon rivers and lakes on Titan, and to nitrogen glaciers on Pluto.  Again, I must emphasize how well the illustrations are keyed to the text.  We end (temporarily) out amongst the exoplanets and the star-forming region in the Eagle Nebula, thousands of light-years from the Earth, with musings on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Buratti was a graduate student of both Frank Drake and Carl Sagan at Cornell).  Captain Kirk would be envious.

The narrative is, throughout, engaging.  And very personal.   Buratti may be writing for the ordinary layperson in general but she is very concerned to be writing for young girls in particular: ‘Under the shadows of the mighty blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel, where my Dad labored every day, a young girl could dream and think…I didn’t let those legions of buzz-cut engineers [from the early years of NASA’s space efforts] scare me away from what I really wanted to do.’  We, her readers, can be grateful.

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