Friday, April 01, 2011

The Grand Tour by Ron Miller and William K. Harrtmann

Back when I was young, I lucked into buying a book full of Chesley Bonestell's art. Known as the "Father of Planet Painting", he was the first to imagine what landscapes on other worlds that weren't like Earth would actually look like. And while he didn't make any of the paintings in this book, the book is dedicated to him and his visions of other worlds.

Normally, when writing a book about our solar system, conventional wisdom is to start at the sun and work your way outwards, ecountering many different worlds as you go. In contrast, this book starts from the largest body in our Solar system and works its way downwards from there. Minus the Sun, the book starts with Jupiter, then Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Earth. Venus, Mars... but the main difference here is thatin addition to just the planets, the book includes all of the known moons of the planets (at least, as they were known in 1981, the time of this book's publication), but even some of what could be called small or lesser planets, including some of the asteroids, such as Ceres, Eros, Amor and Apollo.

Each section starts with an overview of the world in question, from size and other vital statistics, along with numerous pictures or paintings of what the world looks like, both from space and either on the surface or in its atmosphere. Even the Earth is given this treatment, and one of the most interesting and enlightening pictures is a view of the ocean, with no land in sight. This is a view any alien astronauts would see from over 75% of the Earth's surface. In fact, as the authors of the book tell us, the more accurate name for our planet would be "Sea" or "Water", since our planet has so much of it.

At the time this book was written, Voyager had not yet reached Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, so the sheer, staggering number of moons discovered there was not yet known, nor about the Shepherd Moons that are part of Saturn's Ring system, keeping the ring particles in place. Only one , S2, was known at the time, instead of the 48 we currently know about. Likewise, not all of Jupiter's 62 moons are covered here.

More interesting than the planets are the so-called minor worlds or small planets, including Pluto, Chiron, Ceres, Charon and the other asteroids, which presciently predict its current status as a "Dwarf Planet" or "KBO/ Kuiper Belt Object". Most of the illustrations here are paintings and not pictures, but the closer planets that we have explored are shown with not only pictures, but also maps, even the parts we don't see, like the dark side of the moon (since the moon always has the same side turned towards us).

I found this book fascinating, even if it was sadly out of date, and there were plenty of interesting pictures, paintings and factoids to keep my interest. As I said before, the book is dedicated to Chelsey Bonestell, and while the pictures in here are not his, they certainly evoke much of his best work, such as the surface of Jupiter, a sea of liquid methane that barely moves under the grinding pressure of its atmosphere, while lightning continually sparks and jumps through the dark clouds. I found it an evocative picture, no less than the one showing the thinness of Saturn's rings or the painting of how the ring would look from one of Saturn's moons, a tiny white crack splitting the sky in half.

Though the material on how many moons each planet has may be out of date, the pictures are still wonderful to behold, and the views and shape of the various minor worlds is wonderful to view. Perhaps it's not too late to wonder when we will be able to experience these worlds through more than cameras and paintings, and actually see them with the naked eye, or from a spacecraft orbiting the planets. As an aid to imagination and wonder, I would still recommend this book.

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