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Book Review:  Planet Hunter

Reviewed by: Marianne Dyson
Title: Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Worlds
Author: Vicki Oransky Wittenstein
Ages: 9-12
Format: Paperback
Pages: 48
Publisher: Boyds Mills Press
Date: March 2010
Retail Price: $17.95
ISBN: 1590785924

Author Vicki Oransky Wittenstein has created a fascinating book about the search for exoplanets. The opening paragraph transports the reader to the summit of Mauna Kea where the author personally observed astronomer Dr. Geoffrey Marcy and his team using the Keck I telescope to gather the faint light of stars that he will later analyze for the telltale signs of planetary companions.

I interviewed Marcy for my book Space and Astronomy a few years ago and was delighted that Wittenstein chose him as the biographical subject for this book. I enjoyed “meeting” him again and learning even more details about the life of this inspirational scientist. Many young readers should relate to Marcy’s struggles with math in high school, and perhaps be comforted to know that despite those troubles, he successfully pursued a double major in physics and astronomy — and graduated with honors.

Showing that scientists are not “all work and no play” is consistent with many state science education standards that encourage learning about scientists and society. Planet Hunter lets students go behind the scenes and come away with a good understanding of what astronomers actually do. Chapter 2 deftly shows how Marcy’s initial interest in the night sky developed into the passion of a career. However, immediately following the description of Marcy’s decision, as a young professor, to search for planets, is a hodgepodge of other information about his wife, sports, and music that felt as if it were tacked on to complete his biography rather than flowing logically into chapter 3 (about how he pursued his astronomical calling).

The topic of how astronomers find planets is very clearly and thoroughly explained with diagrams, sample spectra, and quotes in Chapter 3. Marcy’s analogies of planets being like dogs who pull their stars around will be easily grasped by young readers—and is one that space enthusiasts can use when explaining such things to the general public as well. Even though the science behind how iodine gas provides a spectral fingerprint is quite advanced, the reader is not overwhelmed with jargon or technical explanations. Terms are defined in context and further clarified with analogies and the adept use of quotes from Marcy. (An extensive glossary is also included in the back of the book.)

Though Marcy is the “main character” of the book, brief profiles of other astronomers involved with planet hunting are also included, namely Paul Butler and Debra Fischer.

Chapter 4 is devoted to the discovery of the first exoplanets and Marcy’s role in those discoveries. The first planet was discovered by Dr. Michael Mayor and Dr. Didier Queloz in 1995. Marcy confirmed the first discovery, found the next two, and went on to discover many more after that. Science teachers and parents who warn students to watch out for hidden assumptions that can lead to incorrect conclusions may appreciate Marcy’s realization that if he had not assumed that all planetary systems would look like ours, he would have been first to discover an exosolar planet. As the book explains, once he knew that gas giants (called “hot Jupiters”) can orbit stars in just a few days, he found the second exoplanet by going back through data he had already collected.

Besides the science and the astronomer’s story, the book is gorgeously illustrated with photos and imaginative art of exosolar planets. The background image for the sidebars was, appropriately, the surface of a star. The sunspots in those images looked like bugs squished between the pages — sure to appeal to male readers!

The book concludes with a look ahead at planned new telescopes that will be capable of detecting smaller planets and perhaps one that is an Earth look-a-like. A brief explanation of the characteristics of a habitable planet are included and discussed in terms of how they impact future searches. Marcy’s final quote speaks to why the search for these planets is important, especially to those of us who feel that the human settlement of space is only a matter of when, not if. “Imagine finding another species that we can communicate with, that we can share art, music, and literature with, and that might unite us as people.”

Planet Hunter is a book that a child may read multiple times, each time absorbing more of the richness in the images and scientific wonder in the words. If they are inspired to learn more, a great list of books and Web sites is included in the appendix. I highly recommend this book.

© 2010 Marianne Dyson

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