I Sing the Body Cosmic
By Ezra Orlofsky
In her latest work, The Planets, Dava Sobel weaves an intricate narrative of science, poetry, Biblical allusions, and
music in order to describe our solar system. The result is compelling and mysterious, a fine web of creation myth and
contemporary discoveries amalgamating a millennia of human endeavors to peer into the universal recess. Sobel
begins aptly with Genesis, an overview of our solar system and its context.
She shrewdly avoids theological speculation on notions of purpose and Creator, instead melding the scientific account with the Biblical one, mentioning the “Spirit of the Lord hovering over the deep” as a possible reference to the gaseous vapors from whence the sun was spawned.
Sobel is noble in her treatment of the cosmos. She does not, as many members of the scientific establishment feel compelled to, disregard the significance of the varying cultural accounts of the universe and its origins. Astrology, the Zodiac, legend, fantasy, Galileo, Wordsworth, Hubble, Sobel refers in many instances to those within and without the pale of the immediate scientific community. As well she should, for the book is about the solar system, designed to explain and describe the cosmic chorus, and not just from a particular set of eyes. It may be said that the Western tradition does indeed figure a prominent part of that description, but it seems that is only a reflection of the author’s societal perspective and education, not a deliberate attempt at presenting a particular vision.
After Genesis, Sobel moves sunward and each chapter after is devoted to a particular planet. With a discerning eye, Sobel directs our gaze upon the harsh and violent Mercury, the psychedelic Venusian vistas, and so on. The planets are endeared, described and personalized in inimitable fashion. Many peculiarities and odd coincidences are detailed without the breathless fascination of the less empirical. For instance, the moon is precisely the right size and at the exact distance from the sun and Earth so that a total solar eclipse is possible. The atmosphere on Venus exerts a pressure on the planet equivalent to a depth of 3,000 feet below the Earth’s oceans. There is absolutely no water on the surface of the moon, and a footprint there has a life of easily a million years. Sobel explains how the various celestial bodies can be thought of as producing a symphony if the rate of rotation is related to a particular note and octave.
Indeed, the English composer Guztav Holst composed a symphony entitled The Planets, Suite for Orchestra, essentially an ode to the heavens.
In reference to Sobel’s hymn to the planets, I can only quote from the Psalmist, “When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You have set in place. What is frail man that You should remember him, and the son of mortal man that You should be mindful of him?” Yet as Sobel proves: “You have made him but slightly less than angels, and crowned him with soul and splendor.”