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Planet Quest

Planet Quest

by Ken Croswell

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A leading astronomer provides an “excellent introduction” (New York Times Book Review) to the search for faraway planets and extraterrestrial life-a “fascinating” guide (Astronomy) that is “everything a good science-for-the-public book should be” (Cleveland Plain Dealer). Black-and-white photographs.


A leading astronomer provides an “excellent introduction” (New York Times Book Review) to the search for faraway planets and extraterrestrial life-a “fascinating” guide (Astronomy) that is “everything a good science-for-the-public book should be” (Cleveland Plain Dealer). Black-and-white photographs.

Editorial Reviews

John Durant
Fascinating and worthwhile. -- The New York Times Book Review
New Scientist
Excellent...the detailed research Croswell has put into his book makes it a joy for any student of the subject. I find it hard to see how anyone could have done a better job in bringing this exciting field to the general reader.
Strewn with fascinating discoveries...Croswell does a magnificent job of providing a broad perspective of the entire subject.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a book as rich in story as it is in science, Croswell (The Alchemy of the Heavens) takes readers on an epic journey through time and space. The story opens in Rome on February 17, 1600, where defrocked priest Giordano Bruno is being led to his execution; it ends on the threshold of interstellar exploration. To Bruno, who lost his life for proclaiming an infinite universe filled with stars and planets beyond imagining, science was not the enemy of religion but the tool of revelation of God's infinite splendor. To Croswell, the actions of Bruno's accusers demonstrated what they most feared: the insignificance of their individual lives. This book, filled with stories of disappointment and triumph, of missed opportunity and unexpected discovery, recounts four centuries of intertwining quests for grand ideas and individual glory by scientists and philosophers struggling to make sense of our place in the cosmos. It tells of three contentious solar planets "discovered" at various times: one (Vulcan, inside Mercury's orbit) was proven not to exist; one (Planet X, beyond Neptune and Pluto) was once avidly sought but now seems chimerical; and one (Pluto) may simply be part of a "cometary belt" beyond Neptune. Tales of scientific competition and serendipitous discovery, premature claims and heroic admissions of error mark the quest to become the 20th-century Columbus, the discoverer of the first extra-solar world. Soon the number of known planets beyond the solar system will far exceed the nine in our small neighborhood. We are poised, Croswell shows in his exceptional book, on an era of planet quest that promises to propagate the best and worst of humanity to other stars and worlds.
Library Journal
After summarizing the history of the discovery of the outer planets in our solar system, science writer Croswell (The Alchemy of the Heavens) moves on to the exciting, and apparently authentic, recent discoveries of planets revolving around stars other than our Sun. He tells of a variety of premature "discoveries" that could not be confirmed and of more soundly based findings in the 1990s. He explains well the scientific basis of the search for remote planets and is candid about the rivalries and disagreements among the ambitious researchers in this field. Despite a speculative last chapter on the prospects for interstellar travel, Croswell wisely concentrates in general on the science (not the science fiction) of planetary searching. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries. Jack W. Weigel, Univ. of Michigan Lib., Ann Arbor
Kirkus Reviews
A lively, timely history of the search for extrasolar planets—today's hottest astronomical game. Croswell, an astronomer and journalist (The Alchemy of the Heavens), relates how, beginning with William Herschel's 1781 discovery of Uranus, the search for new planets became a holy grail for astronomers; Neptune, Pluto, and the asteroids followed in due course. ("Planet X," believed by some astronomers to account for perturbations in the orbit of Uranus, remains undiscovered.) But planets beyond our own system seemed too remote for even the best telescopes to spot—the nearest star system being 25 trillion miles away, and others millions of times farther than that. At that distance, only indirect methods can apply, in particular, measuring minute fluctuations in the motions of stars, which a sufficiently large planet would cause. Such fluctuations have been reported, and ascribed to distant planets, since the 1940s. But until very recently, better observations have usually deflated the discoverers' claims. (One prominent astronomer's claim of periodic motions of Barnard's Star was finally explained by a periodic wobble in his telescope.) The space age made newer techniques available. A large planet would be expected to emit large amounts of infrared light, and when the bright star Vega was found to be unexpectedly energetic in the infrared, it was taken by some as evidence of planets. (A ring of dust is the more likely answer.) These and other false alarms were the entire story until 1995, when two Swiss astronomers reported a large object in orbit around 51 Pegasi, now considered the first observation of an extrasolar planet. Croswell provides engaging portraits of theastronomers (from Giordano Bruno through Geoffrey Marcy, one of those who discovered 51 Pegasi's planet) as well as a clear, lively summary of the scientific material. A thoroughly readable addition to the astronomy bookshelf.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Harvest Book Series
Product dimensions:
5.98(w) x 9.01(h) x 0.79(d)

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