Thursday, December 13, 2012

Quest for A Good Comet Book

When I read the phrase “Comet Environmental Protection Agency” in David H. Levy’s book “The Quest for Comets,” I just about lost it.

Not because I have anything against the terrestrial EPA, or want to be one of those people trashing the environment because I can. But proposing, even in passing, that disturbing the orbit of comets or mining comets for minerals or water and such might make it necessary for another bureaucracy just made me giggle. Almost as much as the scientists who listed “not wanting to introduce Earth-borne radiation” into the environment of the Moon, where it would compete with natural Moon-based radiation as a reason for not blowing up a nuclear bomb on the Moon in the 1950s.

Other than that – and at times the book’s rather mundane pacing – Levy’s book on comets is good. Not great. He’s no poetic science populist. Nothing he said made me want to drop everything and go out to look at the stars (though I will be watching the Geminid meteor shower tonight). I guess, inspirational, get-me-out-of-the-chair science writing, I’ve read better. Levy sounds a lot less like Carl Sagan and a lot more like your knowledgeable uncle, who knows a lot about the subject, granted, but has all the storytelling style and panache of a paper bag when it comes to the telling.

Maybe that’s a little harsh. But I’m a big believer in scientists being able to talk with people, not just to them.

AVON Science’s presentation of the book doesn’t help. This kind of material calls for sharp photos printed on slick paper, not the fuzzy photos we get from printing on this common pulp. Granted, I read a crappy paperback copy, but still. Yikes.

Writing-wise, the most grating portion was the book’s tail, in which Levy tries to get into the science fiction of the whole science of comets. When I read about nuclear missiles going to detonate comets or asteroids before they could collide with Earth, I already knew all the arguments for and against since I’ve read them from better science fiction authors.

To summarize: Want a book that will teach you about comets and the science behind them, but written by someone with the poet’s touch? Read Sagan/Ann Druyan’s Comet first, and maybe Levy’s The Quest for Comets second. I think you’ll see a big difference.

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