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The SciFri Book Club Tours 'The Planets'


Time for another chapter in our SCIENCE FRIDAY Book Club. The club regulars are all assembled. Flora Lichtman, our multimedia editor, is here.


FLATOW: Annette Heist, our senior producer.


FLATOW: Tell us about - who wants to tell us about what book we're discussing today? Annette, do you want to start?

HEIST: We are taking a tour of "The Planets" by Dava Sobel.

FLATOW: And that came out in 2005.

HEIST: 2005, right. And we actually - you talked with Dava Sobel in 2006 about this book, and at that time you asked her why she started the book with a chapter on the sun. The chapter is called "Genesis," and this gives a good taste of the book. Here's what she said.


DAVA SOBEL: The planets certainly owe everything to the sun.

FLATOW: Right.

SOBEL: They were all formed at the same time, and that is the creation story...

FLATOW: Right.

SOBEL: ...that most of us have been told. Scientifically, I don't think they can really be reconciled. But in this book, all links to popular culture were fair game, and I wanted to talk about the planets in ways that would be familiar to people who were not necessarily informed or even interested in astronomy.

FLATOW: And she does talk about, all through the book, about the planets. And we want to invite our listeners if they have read - hopefully some of them have read "The Planets." Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can participate in our Book Club, SCIENCE FRIDAY Book Club selection, "The Planets" by Dava Sobel, came out in 2005. What do you think about the book? What do you - did you like it, do you not like it? We're very happy to hear from you.

Flora, what is it about the book that you found?

LICHTMAN: That's a non-leading question.


HEIST: (Unintelligible) Flora.

LICHTMAN: Ouch. Too much pressure. I think we should explain how the book is set up. So it's entries on every planet and the moon, and I actually like that because you can pick it up. You can dive into one. You can leave. But I, you know, I also sort of enjoy reading the dictionary from time to time. And that is a little bit what this is like in the sense that, you know, there's no story that connects from one to the next.

HEIST: Each chapter stands alone.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I think that's right.

FLATOW: But there's a lot of poetry, you know? It's not a science - you wouldn't think of it as a quote-unquote heavy-handed science book. More as a popularizer of science, I would say.

HEIST: Sort of a popularizer, although the pop culture elements that are included are not like Train's, you know, song "Venus" or that science, but more of Van Gogh, Shakespeare. There's poetry by Blake. There's a little bit of Darwin in there. Highbrow.

LICHTMAN: It's a potpourri.

HEIST: Yeah. Highbrow.


LICHTMAN: And the thing about the poetry, I mean I think, you know, that's a matter of taste kind of thing. So to give you a sense, there's a lot of decorative language in this book like: As the stars enriched the heavens that had borne them, the heavens gave rise to new generations of stars. So that - you get a sense of - there's sort of - you know, if you like that writing style. I feel like maybe I'm a little too geeky and...

FLATOW: Not enough details, not - heavy geeky science...

LICHTMAN: Geek me up, you know? Give me the science details. That, to me...


LICHTMAN: ...is compelling. And so I could have had more.


HEIST: More science, less astrology. I think that was the part of the book that I disliked. The chapter on Jupiter gives us a lot of astrology, which - and not enough to actually know any more about how astrology works, just a lot of astrology terminology, and I wasn't particularly interested in that.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us @scifri, at - and also go to our website at sciencefriday.com and our Facebook page. We're talking about "The Planets," a book by best-selling author Dava Sobel, came out in 2005.

I think it's a good beginning book...


FLATOW: ...for people who do not, you know, have a great depth of knowledge about the planets.

HEIST: Yeah. I think we almost know too much here.


LICHTMAN: Yeah. I think that might be right, although I found that there were a lot of interesting little tidbits in it, like did you know that every full moon has its own name? So there's not just the harvest moon. There's also the wolf moon and the snow moon and the sap moon and the crow moon. And so I looked up - thank you, Farmers' Almanac, for letting me know when the next full moon is. It's December 28, and it's the full cold moon. But we can look forward to the full snow moon, I believe, on January 26.

FLATOW: Yeah. That's something you don't normally pick up, you know, hearing that each moon has its own - you hear about the harvest moon, maybe, the blue moon every once in a while.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, I didn't know that.

HEIST: Right.

LICHTMAN: I liked learning that.

HEIST: I liked the factoids too. I'll get in on that. I liked learning where the names of some of the moons came from, Shakespeare, or which parts of mythology the names were borrowed from for other planets. And that song was "Drops of Jupiter," I was trying to pull out, by Train...


FLATOW: But also - and the naming - and she talks about the naming conventions changing too, right?


FLATOW: New things or other names...

HEIST: Yes. I think there's parts of Mars - now I can't remember what page it was on, but now they're named after more common things. Isn't there rye bread...

LICHTMAN: It used to be from old classical Greek mythology.

FLATOW: Right.

HEIST: Right, right.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones, get some comments from Shane in Detroit. Hi, Shane.

SHANE: Hi. How's it going? Happy holidays, everyone.

FLATOW: You too. Thank you.

SHANE: I was just calling to say that I had the privilege of listening to "The Planets" on a - book on tape while driving down to Florida. And I just wanted to say that everyone should read, if not the whole book, the section that talks about the moon because there's a description of someone consuming a piece of lunar dust. And it was - I mean I was floored by how emotional and raw it was, and just showing the connection between people and outer space was the most personal thing I've ever read about space. And I just think it's amazing, so I wanted to share that with everyone.

FLATOW: Yeah. People are nodding their heads here with you on it.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I remember that section too. Also, what would you do with moon dust? Would you eat it? That would never occur to me.

SHANE: You know, I thought it was insane up until, you know, reviewing that book. But if I did come across a piece of moon dust or ever had the opportunity, I think I would consume it just because of the description in the book - just a celestial overtaking of the tongue and the metallic stinging. I wish that I could experience it.

FLATOW: At first...

HEIST: I had the same reversal.

LICHTMAN: Me too. I thought this is crazy and then I was sort of sold on it.

HEIST: I think the author, Dava Sobel, set it up like that. At first you thought she was going to be like I can't believe you would do that, but then it turns out she's actually jealous.


FLATOW: You'd think that some astronaut up there on the moon - thanks for the call, Shane, and happy holiday.

SHANE: You too.

FLATOW: Must've taken a little bit of dust, right?

LICHTMAN: Sure. Absolutely.

FLATOW: Wouldn't you want to - you're feeling it in your fingers...

HEIST: Stuff in your pockets like your beachcombing.


FLATOW: Put in your mouth to see what it tastes like, yeah, yeah. 1-800-989-8255. We're talking about Dava Sobel's book, "The Planets." Give us a call. You can also tweet us or comment. Did you like the book, do you have something to say about it? Here with Annette Heist and Flora Lichtman. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're going to take a short break, and we'll be right back to talk lots more with our SCIENCE FRIDAY book club members. So stay with us. We'll be right back.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. The SCIENCE FRIDAY book club is in session.


FLATOW: Gavel - (unintelligible) here with me are Flora Lichtman and Annette Heist. We're talking about the 2005 book "The Planets" by Dava Sobel. And while the book is only seven years old, lots of stuff, you know, about the planets has been written, and since then is the news of water, ice on Mercury, new moons around Pluto; one of course - it seems like every week there's something new from Mars rover to tell us something, stuff. Pluto's been demoted (unintelligible). Here to tell us...

LICHTMAN: (Unintelligible).

FLATOW: Yeah. Tell us more what seems like - it's like the golden age of planetary discover, as Jim Green, he's the director of the planetary science division in NASA. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Green.

DR. JIM GREEN: Well, thank you, Ira. It's just a delight to be here.

FLATOW: Tell us, did you read the book?

GREEN: Actually, I did. Not too long after it came out, and what I really liked - as we've heard from a number of people, they like different aspects of it. But I like the chapter on the Cassini Orbit Insertion at Saturn. And then Dava was asked by one of the atmospheric scientists, Andy Ingersoll, to come on over and chill with the rest of the scientists. And I think when she went there, she expected that the scientists would be maybe, you know, book worms, geeks, shy, et cetera, and what she found out is these were real people and they exude excitement and they exude the anticipation of the discoveries that Cassini now would make, and it was a life-long dream. I mean many of these people had been working on the project for about 15 years to get it to this point, to get it to Saturn, and now, now the door was open to make some fabulous observations of a beautiful system with rings and moons and many things to discover, and of course that's what's happened over r the last several years.

FLATOW: Well, let us go back in our way back machine a little bit, to March 2011. We heard some news about Saturn's moon, Titan. Elizabeth Turtle, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins, was on the show to talk about some weird weather on Titan.

GREEN: Oh, yeah.

FLATOW: So it's springtime and it's raining there but not liquid water rain.

ELIZABETH TURTLE: Right. Exactly. So it's cold enough that methane is a liquid on Titan. So we see methane in lakes and seas, and those are all concentrated near Titan's poles, and that methane can evaporate up into the atmosphere and condense and form bright methane clouds, which we've been observing and tracking for several years, and apparently rain out on to the surface as well.

FLATOW: Amazing. Wow, there are a lot different thing, Jim. A lot of other stuff has changed then. We've found signs of water in a lot unexpected places, like on the moon, in Mercury, and stuff has happened in those seven years.

GREEN: Oh, absolutely. In fact, you know, the process that we put in place starting in early 2000 was to follow the water at Mars. You know, Mars looked like it was pretty much moon-like, maybe very arid, and by the time we got our high-resolution camera in place, and by the time we then got down to the surface with Spirit and Opportunity and Sojourner and Phoenix, that actually tasted the water, and putting all the clues together, we find that signs of water on the surface of Mars are everywhere. And in fact, we've even seen what appears to be briny water leaking out of the sides of craters, flowing down before - flowing down the sides of the craters before that sub - evaporates, rather, because it does appear to be liquid at first. And so, water is on Mars even today. Maybe a significant amount trapped underneath the surface. So we're realizing that the solar system actually is a pretty soggy place.


LICHTMAN: Dr. Greene, will you tell us what's happening with Pluto? People aren't giving up on it being a planet, are they?

GREEN: No, they're not, but I believe that when New Horizons flies through the Pluto system, it will completely change our understanding of these small objects that exist out beyond Neptune that we call the Kuiper Belt, and these are volatile, rich, smaller bodies that are basically debris left over from the beginning of the collapse of our cloud and the origin of our solar system way back, you know, four and half billion years ago. So we're going to find that these - now that, you know, Pluto has got not one moon, Charon, since we launched the spacecraft, but actually five moons - Nix, Hydra and two others that have been found unnamed - and so there's a process going on right now. Perhaps it's an accretion process where we're actually watching these things coalesce into larger bodies.

FLATOW: You sound like you're still a believer in Pluto.


FLATOW: Let me take us back in our way back (unintelligible) a little bit to Mike Brown in 2011. He, of course, is professor of planetary astronomy at Caltech and the author of "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming."


FLATOW: He was on to talk about how Pluto got its planetary status revoked, and he didn't seem to set out to determine - to undermine this little ice ball.

MIKE BROWN: I was searching for a 10th planet, that I knew that if I found something bigger than Pluto, clearly it had to be a planet. But by the time I got there, by the time I found the object that we now know to be more massive than Pluto, it was really clear that there were so many other things out there that it really made much more sense to step back and call those eight big ones planets. And all of these other things that I've been finding are just parts of the Kuiper Belt, cosmic debris.

LICHTMAN: Jim Green, does that mean that the jury is still out?

GREEN: No. Actually, if I may take one second and talk about going way, way back and talk about a time in our science history for which a similar event has occurred - and if we go back to 1850, and we would say how many planets were then you had to memorize in the solar system, you went in the library and you pulled out that physics book and you found that chapter, you would have to memorize 23 planets.

Now, where did all the planets go? Well, many of those were Ceres, Vesta, Juno, Eros and a whole series of other smaller bodies that we then by 1852 realized, this isn't - these aren't planets. These are material that's between Mars and Jupiter. It's a completely different class of objects. We'll call them asteroids. And when they did that, then they dropped from 23 to eight.

The same thing is happening, but now in the outer part of our solar system. Pluto is a member of a completely new population of a very exciting set of objects that we know not a lot about. But we're about ready, as I mentioned, with New Horizons to find out what's going on out there. Now, as Mike Brown mentioned, he did find many, many out there, and with the others in the community looking for these objects well beyond Pluto we found probably more than a thousand already, many of which are Pluto's size. So we have a lot to learn about our solar system. That's - it's just a completely new population of object and we call them dwarf planets.

FLATOW: Yeah. And we've seen now - we've seen other solar systems. We were talking about this just before. Other solar systems, exo-planets, that it seems like there may be more of the kind - of our kind of solar system around that we thought before.

GREEN: Absolutely. I mean, we're finding - of course the first things we start to find are these really big planets because they're easier to find as they (unintelligible) the sun and take away their sun, and take away more light. And therefore, as that star diminishes in brightness, we can say, oh, that's a giant planet. And from that we can also get its - a lot of its orbital characteristics. And what we find is some of these huge planets are on highly elliptical orbits. Others are at orbits that are closer than Mercury is to our sun. And yet we know that those planets couldn't have formed that way.

And this also began to revolutionize our thinking about how planets interact with one another and the potential for those planets to migrate, not only as they gained mass and move inward, but also as they go through gravitational resonances and fight for position. One being thrown out, one being thrown in. And then as they get to close to the sun, tidal interactions eventually take these elliptical orbits and make them circular. So it's a fascinating new dimension in understanding origin and evolution of our solar system because we can also compare with what was going on around other stars.

FLATOW: Well, you don't sound very excited, Dr. Green...


GREEN: ...about this age we're living in. It is sort of a golden age of planetary exploration, is it not?

It really is. And it's also a confluence of explosion in social media that is allowing us to share that excitement, to get the word out. You know, Dava's book is really wonderful. I've given it out as gifts. But in reality, it could have stood a revision each and every year and have been more and more exciting as we talk about some of the new discoveries. Now we can do that online. We've got e-books. We've got many things to tell our people that fund the NASA program, and let them in on what we're finding out.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, thank you very much, Dr. Green, for sharing your knowledge and your enthusiasm with us today. And...

GREEN: Oh, my pleasure.

FLATOW: ...we'll keep following...

GREEN: Thank you.

FLATOW: ...the continuing saga of Pluto as it unwinds. Dr. Jim Green is director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.