The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   12

Venus Revealed

A New Look Below the Clouds of Our Mysterious Twin Planet

by David Harry Grinspoon

Addison-Wesley, 1997

Rock and Roll Science

In his preface, Professor Grinspoon tells us that ``Like most nerds, I was drawn into my field (planetary science) simply because it was the coolest thing I could imagine doing.'' Such terribly partial views (it is obvious to the any unbiased mind that the study of cellular automata is far and away more interesting) and complete lack of the decorum and gravitas becoming to an assistant professor at a respectable public university are entirely typical of this author. For which, thank all the gods, since these traits led him to write a very good and very fun book; one expects to find merely a planet, and is pleasantly surprised to discover a man as well.

The planet, of course, is Venus. In his first five chapters Grinspoon tells us about how Venus seems to move through the night sky, what the ancients thought about it and how they worked it into their mythologies (especially in Mesoamerica), how it was seen in the interval between the invention of the telescope and the invention of space travel (including science fiction novels and movies --- oddly, Edgar Rice Burroughs's Venus books escaped his keen), the discoveries of the first interplanetary probes, the current picture of how Venus works, from the top of the atmosphere down through the core. This last focuses on the atmosphere (unfriendly) and, for lack of a better word, the geology, and is deeply shaped by the results of the Magellan probe, whose story he tells well, and which gave us the spectacular maps in the glossy inserts. All of the science is explained very well, and not this is true not merely of our current theories about Venus, but also of the instruments and the process of discovery that led us to them. Those of us who have taught introductory science courses know how difficult the latter task is, and I'm quite envious of how well he does it. I will make no attempt to summarize this here, since I couldn't possibly do it as well as he does.

The sixth and last chapter is about the possibility of life on Venus, with big warning signs about rampant speculation. At first glance, Venus is not a good place to look for life (or, as he says, ``life as we know it''): the surface temperature would melt metal and the surface pressure crush it, ultra-violet light abounds (there being no ozone layer), there's next to no water and the atmosphere is corrosive. But stopping at the first glance would confirm us as parochial Earth-dwelling ``bloated sacks of protoplasm'' (a phrase, strangely, he does not use). Maybe carbon-slime-in-water is not the only possible sort of life; perhaps a bias towards carbon-slime is ``built into the chemical structure of our every cell.'' (This strikes me as being on all fours with worrying that a wooden meter-stick couldn't measure steel girders right.) Perhaps there could be carbon-slime life in the clouds (an idea I like) or the higher mountain tops (which seems less plausible). The real point is that we are in no position to dogmatize, knowing little about life on this planet and zip about life in general. Having loosened the hold of what can only be called geocentricism upon us, he closes by discussing what the burning question about Venus are, how we might go about answering them, and why it matters. Leaving aside considerations like knowledge as an end in itself, the fact is that we are now running this planet, and the more we know about how planets work, the less chance that we'll kill ourselves off. (Cf. Stewart Brand in the original 1968 Whole Earth Catalog : ``We are as gods and might as well get good at it.'')

As to the man, he strikes me as an attractive specimen of a certain species of post-war American humanity. Rock and roll is second only to planetary science in coolness (Jimi Hendrix illustrates positive feedback; epigraphs are almost all rock lyrics). Science is a Good Thing, and he doesn't entertain any doubts about it --- we know the Copernicans were right, he says, because we've `` `been there, done that.' '' Still, science really needs to loosen up: ``If we added more humility and appreciation of the unknown and unknowable to our scientific education, it could go a long way to helping us compete in the worldview marketplace'' (p. 304n) --- which makes me want to ask for an instance of even one worldview which has done well because of its humility and modesty. (Aside: I'm willing to bet that, in some bookstore or other, Venus Revealed will be confused with Isis Unveiled and shelved accordingly.) The exploration of space, while initially bankrolled for Bad Reasons and employing some very Bad Men (``We aim for the stars, but sometimes we hit London''), is a Good Thing and a Noble Undertaking. (I agree, but couldn't he have quoted Arthur Clarke or Freeman Dyson instead of, may the gods protect us, Timothy Leary?) The ancients are respected for their astronomical skills (which is only proper), and for the way this ``knowledge was integrated into religious and civic life'' (which is bogus); the Whiggery which seems inseparable from being a working scientist is vented on astronomers between Galileo and Mariner, and on those since then who take Earth as the standard by which to judge other planets. Naturally, he is politically correct, but in a way only a bigot could object to. The over-all effect is somewhere between a very informal and lively lecture and a first-rate bull session, and if I argue with him it's only because it's encouraged and quite rewarding.

Unless they find such a character quite repulsive, I heartily recommend Venus Revealed not only to all nerds, geeks and their sympathizers, but also to sociologists of science looking for a case study, and anyone in search of intelligent entertainment.

Disclaimer: Prof. Grinspoon was kind enough to bring Venus Revealed to my attention, and to say some flattering things about my Web pages, but I have no stake in the success of his book.
xix + 352 pp. (plus three pages of permission acknowledgements for quoted song lyrics), index, color and black and white plates
Astronomy / Popular Science
Currently in print as a hardback, US$27.50, ISBN 0-201-40655-1, LoC QB621.G75
9 March 1997