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Science Books

September 30, 2005

The Planets
Dava Sobel (2005)
ISBN: 0670034460

Does gazing upon the night sky's sheer brilliance and splendor provoke you to ponder your own serendipitous existence? This is the awe inspiring moment that celebrated science writer Dava Sobel, Longitude and Galileo's Daughter, tries to capture as she momentarily removes her scientific hat and offers a personal view of the solar system. Sobel explores the solar system's planets through the lens of such diverse human pursuits as astrology, mythology, science fiction, art, music, poetry and history. Sobel's humanistic approach provides some insight into how early planetary surveyors may have interpreted what they saw as they gazed enquiringly into the diamond studded night sky. Sobel does not shed her scientific knowledge completely, and she skillfully weaves contemporary scientific understanding with the mysterious and inexplicable. Sobel demonstrates how easy it would have been for early humans to anthropomorphize those mysterious objects in the sky. A lesser writer may not have been able to pull off such a feat as writing from the perspective of a Martian rock, or referring to the solar system as an assortment of magic beans, but Sobel does so beautifully. Other techniques adopted by Sobel include using an imaginary letter from the sister of Uranus discoverer William Herschel to nineteenth-century American astronomer Maria Mitchell that allows for a discussion of women in science. Despite the new approach, Sobel fans will not be disappointed with her latest work, and those new to Sobel will find her account of the planets illuminating and thought provoking.

Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet
Steven Squyres (2005)
ISBN: 1401301495

As you read this, NASA's two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are roaming Mars, but their arrival on Mars was preceded by a spate of technical problems. Roving Mars is the engaging story of how these rovers were developed and what it took to overcome the many problems that scientists had to face. The rovers' story is told by no less than the face and voice of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission, Steve Squyres. Squyres has a long and celebrated history with various high profile space missions that date back to the 1978 Voyager program, where he led the team that analyzed imaging data from Jupiter and Saturn. Squyres first dreamt up the rover mission to Mars 17 years ago, so he has a unique insight into what it took to complete the rovers' successful landing on Mars. In this respect, Roving Mars is as much about one scientist's dramatic and ambitious attempts to realize his goal as it is about the science behind the mission. This is not a self-aggrandizing exercise for Squyres', however, as Roving Mars is a warts and all report on the mistakes, politics and apparent confusion endured by Squyres' team during the mission. The book's cracking pace is not slowed by page after page of technical jargon, but neither does Squyres shy away from explaining complex technical aspects of the mission. Squyres' tale is a roller coaster of a ride that takes the reader through the exciting highs and the pressures associated with leading a multi million-dollar space program.

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