Lives of the Planets:
A Natural History of the Solar System

Richard Corfield

Basic Books 2007
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007
Lives of the Planets is not about the planets themselves so much as about their exploration, and in particular about the probes that have been sent to investigate them, and the people behind those. It proceeds outwards through the solar system, with chapters on the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth and the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. As well as planetary science, these chapters touch on engineering, archaeoastronomy, the history of science and astrobiology, among other fields.

There are problems with Lives of the Planets. Its biology is clearly based on popular works — Gould, Dawkins, and so forth — and is not always accurate. Corfield explains that "punctuated equilibrium predicts that populations experiencing restricted gene flow will undergo bursts of incredibly rapid evolution", presumably confusing it with "founder effect". His treatment of history is unsophisticated and in places wrong: he asserts, for example, that the Germans and Scandinavians navigated into the Mediterranean in preclassical times, before the Greeks and Romans.

On his core topics of solar system exploration and planetary science, however, Corfield seems more solid, and covers less well-trodden ground. He has nothing new to say about Galileo or Newton, but he also introduces less well-known figures such as George Wetherill and Michael Minovitch. Perhaps most importantly, Lives of the Planets is an extremely easy and entertaining read.

July 2007

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%T Lives of the Planets
%S A Natural History of the Solar System
%A Corfield, Richard
%I Basic Books
%D 2007
%O hardcover, index
%G ISBN-13 9780465014033
%P 268pp