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Exploring the Planets: a memoir - Fred Taylor ***

 Back in the day, it seems that every senior officer in the armed forces felt the urge to write a memoir, and publishers churned them out, either out of patriotic duty, or because they felt that these people were involved in something very significant (true), so their stories must be interesting (not always true). There's an echo of this practice that creeps into scientists' memoirs, such as Exploring the Planets by Oxford professor Fred Taylor. There are, without doubt, some really interesting space experiments described in these 360 fairly small print pages, but there's also an awful lot of material that is unrewarding for the reader.

What's good? Taylor gives us an excellent picture of the processes and procedures and bureaucracy needed to get an experiment onto a satellite - and all too often that would fail to get a place, or get funding, after a huge amount of work had been put into it. We get the feeling for the sheer expanse of time involved in these space-based projects. For example, the 'With Galileo to Jupiter' chapter starts with events in 1976, but doesn't strictly end until 2003 when the Galileo orbiter plunges into Jupiter's atmosphere. For me, the three most interesting experiments were Taylor's very first, involving equipment suspended from a balloon that ended up in an unhappy farmer's field near Newbury, the failed Mars Climate Orbiter and the second mission to Venus that involved Taylor.There's certainly plenty here for the (unmanned) space exploration fan to get his or her teeth into.

However, there is also a lot that could be better. Much of the mundane, everyday life material lacks any great interest to the outside observer (except to note that I shall from now on raise an eyebrow when scientists claim to be underpaid, as Taylor had already bought his first Aston Martin - a DB5 - when he was in his twenties). It's hard to plough through pages packed with acronyms, concentrating far more on the politics and the engineering aspects of the job than the underlying science. In fact, Taylor does not seem to be a very good science communicator. He delights in telling us how when being interviewed by Connie Chung for the CBS evening news, she looked puzzled as his explanations were too technical saying 'This pleased me no end.' That's more a failure than something to celebrate. And he rarely makes an attempt to explain the science behind text like 'Some elementary theory, imported from terrestrial atmospheric physics, can explain the behaviour as a consequence of the equator-to-pole overturning Hadley cell, combining with the super-rotating zonal winds and a wavenumber-two instability near the poles.' It's hard to see the point of putting this in at all without explanation.

Another irritating tendency is to get to a point where the text might truly become interesting - then skip over the bits we want to hear about. So, for instance, he tells us that failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter was due to confusion between imperial and metric units, but doesn't give any details to explain how such a mind-boggling error could have occurred. Worse, on a number of occasions Taylor just tells us that he (or someone else) has described something in another book, so he isn't going to tell us about it here. This tends to happen at the most engaging parts, and is hugely frustrating.

There is no doubt that the reader will get some impressively in-depth insights into what goes on in scientific academia (though in many cases it may result in a suspicion that scientists could do with a serious injection of management skills). But it's such a shame that as a scientific memoir it is not more engaging or effective at exploring the science.

Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. This is the author responding. Thanks for the review, mostly fair, except why did you expect in-depth science when it is made clear that the in-depth science is in my other books? There wasn't room for it here, and anyway this book is for the people who are interested in the topic but don't have a science background, or those familiar with the science but who want to read about the more human aspects. Those like yourself would be happier with The Scientific Exploration of Mars (Cambridge, 2009), and The Scientific Exploration of Venus (Cambridge, 2011) – perhaps you’d like to review those? Oh, and the Connie Chung experience was a (partial) failure so far as she was concerned, but what I was pleased about was not that but getting some science out on the CBS evening news, an extremely rare experience particularly then, and the fact that they couldn’t cut it as the programme went out live.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comments. As a popular science book review site, we do tend to review books on the science content. It doesn't have to be in-depth or for those with a science background - in fact the majority of the books we review are for the general reader without any particular science background. But that doesn't mean it's not possible to communicate more about the science.

      Delete
  2. OK, but do please read my Mars and Venus books. I'd like to know what you think of those, in the light of your comments on my Memoir.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Happy to do so - ask your publisher to drop me an email at info@popularscience.co.uk

      Delete

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