Getting to Know the Neighbors

Let’s face it. The universe is a big scary place. Infinitely vast and consisting mostly of an airless vacuum inhospitable to human life, it rarely inspires feelings of comfort and joy. It is also chock full of phenomena that are a little too mind bending for me. A black hole is a point from which light can’t escape? Really?

I’ve always considered our solar system comforting in comparison. There are a set number of planets (don’t get me started on Pluto) that orbit a single life giving star. Sure there are wildcards, comets and meteorites, and it will eventually end badly for the earth (hello red giant) but the solar system has always seemed more tangible and understandable than the inky blackness of space.

Now is a great time to revisit our nearest celestial neighbors. Reflecting the new information that is being discovered every day, there are many new books that are entertaining and take a fresh perspective on our home system.

The new edition of The Cambridge Guide to the Solar System is a great place to start your journey. Far from a stuffy or dry text, this work is full of intriguing information, colorful photos, and cutting edge science. The science can get a bit technical at times, but never fear, there are helpful summaries that allow those of us who haven’t dedicated our lives to figuring out elliptical planetary orbits to get the concepts.

While it may be hard to believe, behind our local cloud cover there is actually a bright glowing orb that powers everything in the solar system. The Sun’s Heartbeat by Bob Berman is a “biography” of our local star that entertains as well as informs the reader through a series of stories on topics as varied as sun spots to solar winds. If your concern is less with the sun itself than the sun’s impact on humanity, definitely check out Chasing the Sun by Richard Cohen. Cohen’s book is an exhaustive and fascinating examination of the sun’s importance across time and cultures.

It is almost 100% certain that most of us are not going to leave the earth’s atmosphere anytime soon.  That’s why books such as The 50 Most Extreme Places in Our Solar System by David Baker and Todd Ratcliff are great.  This book is essentially a travel guide to very inaccessible places. Of course with chapter titles such as “The Hardest Rain: Diamond Hail on Uranus and Neptune” it might be a good thing to be earth bound.

If you find diamond hail an interesting phenomenon, you will definitely want to check out the rest of the solar system’s weather by reading Drifting on Alien Winds by Michael Carroll. From the acid drenched atmosphere of Venus to the centuries old earth-size cyclone that is the giant red spot of Jupiter the author paints a vivid picture. Carroll is also interested in the vehicles, real and imagined, that have been used to explore the planets’ atmospheres and uses his talents as an artist as well as a scientist to bring them to life.

Finally, if speculation grounded by scientific reason is your thing, the book What if the Earth Had Two Moons? by Neil Commins is the title for you. In ten different scenarios the author changes one element in the evolution of the earth (a second moon, a thicker crust, a smaller sun) and contemplates what might have been. This book is a boon for hard sci-fi fans who like to dream of creditable alternatives to our known reality.

So if you want to bask in the relative comfort of our solar system, make your first stop the Everett Public Library.

Richard