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Planet Quest
Ken Croswell
Free Press Books, 324 pages

Planet Quest
Ken Croswell
Ken Croswell is an astronomer in Berkeley, CA. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University for his studys of the Milky Way Galaxy. Author of the highly regarded The Alchemy Of The Heavens, his work has appeared in the such periodicals as Astronomy, New Scientist, The New York Times, and Sky and Telescope.

Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia
Mass Extinctions Threatened by Gamma Rays

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Steven H Silver

Ken Croswell writes about our solar system with all the pride a native New Yorker or Chicagoan displays when describing their hometowns. Unfortunately, this type of enthusiasm is somewhat out-of-place in a science book, even a popular science book such as Planet Quest. In this new book, Croswell, who writes for Astronomy, Sky and Telescope and "Star Date," here turns his attention to the emerging field of extrasolar planetary discovery.

He begins with a useful and interesting discussion of the discovery of solar system planets, beginning with the realization that Earth is a planet and continuing through Tombaugh's discovery of Pluto to the existence of the Kuiper Belt. Although this is a good history, with asides into the basics of orbital mechanics and cosmogony, Croswell also makes several outlandish statements, not least of which is his assertion that "Contrary to the belief of both ordinary folks and even some astronomers, the planets are not uniformly spaces from Mercury to Pluto." (p.13. Italics mine). I have never met a professional astronomer who hadn't heard of the "Titius-Bode Law" and rather doubt anyone could earn a BA in astronomy, much less a Master's or Ph.D. without a basic understanding of planetary orbits. Although not a major point, it does impact on the reliability of Croswell's work.

Croswell also repeatedly seems to be of the opinion that the only purpose for looking for extrasolar planets is the possibility of their harboring life. For this reason, he seems almost dismissive of the discovery of Jovian type planets except insofar as they may indicate terrestrial-type planets in the same system. However, despite this focus, Croswell does not discuss SETI or Frank Drake at any point of his narrative.

Other scientists do get frequent mention as they discuss their work and their discoveries. Unfortunately, here Croswell's strong suit seems to be in the depiction of the pettiness and personalities of these scientists, whether he is describing Shiv Kumar vehemently defending his discovery of brown dwarves or Clyde Tombaugh deriding Constance Lowell's self-aggrandizement.

Throughout the book, Croswell makes frequent reference to charts, graphs and illustrations which are useful in explaining the information he is trying to pass along to the reader. Occasionally, these charts are removed a page or two from the discussion to which they are germane, but this is not a major problem. Similarly, the book includes a lengthy set of appendices: Planetary and Stellar tables, a glossary, and so forth, which are useful for quick reference both when reading the book or when referring to Croswell's arguments.

In the end, Croswell does such a good job deconstructing the arguments for so many planetary systems, the reader is left wondering whether any of the systems he champions won't be disproved in the near future. Extrasolar planetary discovery is still a new field, with one system discovered in 1991, two in 1995, three in 1996 and one in 1997, and any claim that these systems won't be refuted can only be met with derision. Nevertheless, it is important to have a popular explanation of this field early in its history, both to explain what is happening and why it is important to the contemporary lay-person and so our descendents can understand what mistakes we made at this date.

Copyright © 1997 by Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is one of the founders and judges for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. He sits on concoms for Windycon, Chicon 2000 and Clavius in 2001 and is co-chair of Picnicon 1998. Steven will be serving as the Programming Chairman for Chicon 2000. In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is trying to get his short stories published and has recently finished his first novel. He lives at home with his wife and 3200 books. He is available for convention panels.

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