Dr. Fred Bortz

Planet Quest

by Ken Croswell

(Harcourt Brace, 1997)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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In a book as rich in story as it is in science, Croswell (The Alchemy of the Heavens) takes his readers on an epic journey through time and space. It opens in Rome on February 17, 1600, where defrocked priest Giordano Bruno is being led to his execution, and ends on the threshold of interstellar exploration. To Bruno, who lost his life for proclaiming an infinite Universe filled with innumerable stars and planets beyond imagining, science was not the enemy of religion but rather the tool of revelation of God's infinite splendor. The actions of his accusers demonstrated what they most feared: the insignificance of their individual lives.

The book -- filled with stories of disappointment and triumph, of missed opportunity and unexpected discovery -- recounts four centuries of intertwining quests for grand ideas and individual glory by scientists and philosophers struggling to make sense of our place in the Cosmos. It tells of three Solar planets found, one (Vulcan -- inside Mercury's orbit) proven not to exist, one (Planet X, beyond Neptune and Pluto) once avidly sought but now no longer expected, and one (Pluto) that may be undeserving of the title. Tales of scientific competition and seredipitous discovery, premature claims and heroic admission of error, mark the quest to become the twentieth century Columbus, the discoverer of the first extrasolar world.

Soon the number of known planets beyond the Solar System will far exceed the nine in our small neighborhood. Within decades, tens or hundreds of Earthlike worlds will beckon us to cross light-years to explore them. We are poised on an era of Planet Quest that promises to propagate the best and worst of humanity to other stars and other worlds.