Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Planets by Dana Sobel




(Mildly Recommended)




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Dana Sobel shares her passion for science again with her latest book, The Planets. She combines technical information with personal passion and uses often lyrical language to tell the story of the solar system. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the chapter titled, “Music of the Spheres,” pp. 161-165:



Between 1914 and 1916, the English composer Gustav Holst created the only known exam­ple of a symphonic tribute to the Solar System, his Opus 32, The Planets, Suite for Orchestra. Neither Haydn’s “Mercury” (Symphony no. 43 in E flat major) nor Mozart’s “Jupiter” (no. 41 in C; K. 551) had attempted as much. In fact, the title “Jupiter” did not attach itself to Mozart’s work until decades after his death. Similarly, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata was known for thirty years as Opus 27, no. 2, before a poet likened its melody to moon­light shining on a lake.

The Planets suite contains seven movements, as opposed to nine. Pluto had not yet been discov­ered at the time Holst was writing, and he ex­cluded Earth. Nevertheless the piece persists as musical accompaniment to the Space Age, partly because people still like it, and partly because nothing else has supplanted it. To make up for its lacks, contemporary composers have augmented it with occasional new movements, such as “Pluto,” “The Sun,” and “Planet X.”

Holst grew interested in planets through astrol­ogy. In 1913, after a burst of reading on the sub­ject, he began casting friends’ horoscopes and thinking of the planets in terms of their astrologi­cal significance, such as “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” “Uranus, the Magician,” and “Neptune, The Mystic.” His daughter and biographer, Imo­gen, also a composer, recalled that her father’s “pet vice” of astrology led him on to study astronomy, “and the excitement of it would send up his tem­perature whenever he tried to understand too much at once. He was perpetually chasing the idea of the Space-Time continuum.”

A natural affinity between music and astronomy has prevailed since at least the sixth century B.C., when the Greek mathematician Pythagoras per­ceived “geometry in the humming of the strings” and “music in the spacing of the spheres.” Pythago­ras believed the cosmic order obeyed the same mathematical rules and proportions as the tones on a musical scale. Plato reprised the idea two cen­turies later, in The Republic, introducing the mem­orable phrase “music of the spheres” to describe the melodious perfection of the heavens. Plato spoke also of “celestial harmony” and “the most magnificent choir”—terms that imply the songs of angels, though they referred specifically to the un­heard polyphony of the planets in their gyrations.

Copernicus cited the “ballet of the planets” when he choreographed his heliocentric universe, and Kepler built on the work of Copernicus by return­ing repeatedly to the niajor and minor scales. In 1599 Kepler derived a C major chord by equating the relative velocities of the planets with the inter­vals playable on a stringed instrument. Saturn, the farthest and slowest planet, issued the lowest of the six notes in this chord, Mercury the highest.

As Kepler developed his three laws of planetary motion, he expanded the planets’ voices from sin­gle notes to short melodies, in which individual tones represented different speeds at given points along the various orbits. “With this symphony of voices,” he said, “man can play through the eter­nity of time in less than an hour and can taste in small measure the delight of the Supreme Artist by calling forth that very sweet pleasure of the music that imitates God.”

For his 1619 book, Harnionice Mundi (The Har­mony of the World), Kepler drew the five-line musical staff with key-signatures for the several parts, and set down each planet’s theme in the hol­low, lozenge-shaped tablature of his time. Mer­cury’s highly eccentric, high-speed, high-pitched refrain ranged seven octaves above Saturn’s bass-clef rumbling from low G to low B and back again.

“I feel carried away and possessed by an unut­terable rapture over the divine spectacle of the heavenly harmony,” said Kepler. “Give air to the heaven, and truly and really there will be music.”*

The two Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977 and currently headed for the outer boundaries of the Solar System, further this musical heritage. As potential envoys to extraterrestrials, both craft carry a specially engineered golden record (com­plete with its own playback equipment) that expresses the music of the spheres as computer-generated tones designating the velocities of the Sun’s planets. The Voyager Interstellar Record also says “Hello” in fifty-five languages and plays music selected from numerous cultures and com­posers, including Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Stra­vinsky, Louis Armstrong, and Chuck Berry.



*Paul Hindemith’s 1956—57 opera, Die Hannonie der Welt (The Har­mony of the World), dramatizes Kepler’s work on the planetary order.


Sobel shares her wonder about the scientific data on the pages of The Planets, and some readers will be drawn to her enthusiasm.


Steve Hopkins, December 22, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the January 2006 issue of Executive Times


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