Just how many moons does Earth have? How did Jonathan Swift predict the satellites of Mars a century and a half before their discovery? Does an unseen killer lurk at the edge of the solar system, raining down periodic death upon our planet? And just why do astronomers have it in for poor, demoted Pluto?
My latest project, Lost Worlds, is a tour through the misdiscovery of our solar system, exploring the forgotten breakthroughs, mistaken theories, and ferocious disputes that shaped our understanding of our planetary neighbourhood. I’ll let the blurb speak for itself:
Science, like history, tends to get written by the winners, and the science of the stars and planets is no different. Most books about astronomy tell a tale of continuous progress, with old theories discarded in favour of newer and better ones, and never a wrong turn along the way…
Of course the truth is much more interesting than that.
Lost Worlds is a celebration of the forgotten story of astronomy, and in particular of the many planets, moons and other worlds that have been proclaimed, usually mistakenly, in the four centuries since the invention of the telescope. It is a tale of sudden fame and ignominy – of respected names brought low by embarrassing wild goose chases, and of cranks redeemed by modern scientific discoveries.
Ranging from telescopic illusions such as Neith, the lost moon of Venus, through mathematical phantoms like the fiery planet Vulcan, to tantalising “what-ifs?” such as the ninth (or is it tenth?) planet, Lost Worlds sheds new light on everything from the notebooks of Galileo and William Herschel, to the travels of the Voyager spaceprobes and the planet-hunting exploits of today’s giant telescopes.
I hope you’ll find this story as fascinating as I have. I’m currently having a lot of fun writing it, and I’m looking forward to sharing more details about the publication and other aspects in the coming months.
After far too long away (overload of work, plus moving house), I thought I’d better crank the site back into gear – not least because I have a couple of new books in the offing. First up is Mars: A New View of the Red Planet – another big project for the folks at Quercus. If any of you have seen my Cosmos book, then you’ll know the drill – a coffee table book for which you’ll need another coffee table (!), only this one’s all about everyone’s favourite planet (apart from Earth, of course). It’s packed with stunning images from all the latest space missions, and text that aims to provide a state-of-the-art account of our understanding of Mars, a gazetteer of its most impressive and intriguing features, and a history of our fascination with it, and our attempts to map it from orbit and explore its surface.
Mars is out in the US this November (amazon.com linkie), but sadly we in the UK have to wait until next April (amazon.co.uk linkie). There are also various international co-editions in the offing. More on all that sooner rather than later, I hope…
In this month’s Focus Magazine, I take a detailed look at the story of lunar origins. From George Darwin’s “Lunar Fission” theory to the current “Giant Impact” model, the scientific journey to understand the birth of our satellite has taken more than a century so far.
But if some scientists are to be believed, the story may not be over yet. According to research published last year by Zhang et al. in Nature Geoscience, the telltale ratio of titanium isotopes in the lunar soil are similar to within four parts per million, and that’s really a bit too close for comfort. The Giant Impact theory predicts that the Moon should be made from a mix of Earth’s ancient mantle and the Mars-sized interloper Theia, but the titanium isotope ratios suggest that the Moon’s ancient material all came from Earth itself.
So are we back to Darwin’s idea of a satellite that simply split away from Earth for some reason? Maybe not. One theory for the origins of Theia is that it actually formed elsewhere on Earth’s own orbit, at one of the stable Lagrangian points, before becoming unstable and eventually smashing into Earth. If this co-orbital idea is right, then the we’d expect Earth and Theia to be pretty similar since they formed out of the same mix of raw materials. But identical to within four parts per million? That might still be pushing it…
Coinciding with a radical overhaul of my website, I’ve got a new book out with the good folks at Quercus. The Cosmic Gallery, as it’s name suggests, is a visual feast of the most stunning images from space, with pictures from distant NASA spaceprobes, Earth-based observatories and orbiting telescopes. Rather than travelling around the sky, across the Universe or even through cosmic history, our remit here was simply to find the most beautiful images we could depicting the wonders of the Universe as the ultimate in “space art” – something that took a lot of haggling! Each picture is accompanied by a couple of hundred words of text describing the physical processes at work and the technology used to create the image – quite a squeeze! Anyway, thanks largely to the design expertise of Mr Tim Brown and the art department at Quercus, I think the finished result looks splendid!