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Marveling at the way we reach for the stars

The Planets, By Dava Sobel, Viking, 270 pp., illustrated, $24.95

Dava Sobel's new book, ''The Planets," is a small but absorbing collection of essays reflecting on the heavenly bodies of our solar system. Mixing science, biography, mythology, and even astrology, Sobel offers an inspiring view of our celestial neighbors. For the author, what is most remarkable about our solar system is neither its history nor even its splendor, but the majesty of our observations of it. Without people to gaze, measure, and explore, the music of the spheres would be lost in the cacophony of the cosmic noise.

In a move that seems right, Sobel doesn't shy away from using religious or mythological language to describe the origins of the solar system. From the birth of the universe's first stars, one of which became our sun, she uses the book of Genesis to capture the awesomeness of the moment. Sobel continually uses the word ''Creation," and even asks unapologetically if the splendor of a solar eclipse seen from Earth is not ''part of a divine design." But this book isn't subterfuge from an intelligent design proponent. Sobel, who also wrote ''Galileo's Daughter," is one of the few science writers who recall a time when religious language was not literal, but metaphorical, a language of wonder.

Scientific explanations can be filled with their own sense of grandeur if you have the literary ability. What might in another context be dry astrophysics is for Sobel an opportunity for poetry. Mercury, for example, not much more than a smallish molten rock, is transformed into a living world: ''Day breaks over Mercury in a white heat. . . . The nearby Sun lurches into the black sky and looms enormous there, nearly triple the diameter of the familiar orb we see from Earth." Each planet gets this treatment. But Sobel finds a unique place to start for each.

The most compelling aspect of these brief essays is the lengthy discussions of the cultural impact of each planet, including forays into astrology and stories of the gods. Brief biographies of astronomers and explorers give the book a human element. Sometimes the minutiae of each planet's distance from the sun or its geological makeup create a kind of dulling repetition, but Sobel always provides fascinating anecdotes about the obsessive personalities that discovered these details.

Strangely, there is still an unconscious cultural tendency to regard Earth as the center of the universe. Even astrology is a part of pre-Copernican worldview, in which the planets revolve around Earth, with invisible cosmic forces keeping it all together. But as Sobel reminds us, Jupiter is too busy with its own 60-plus moons to exert any influence over the lives of earthlings. She beautifully renders Earth as one small part of the sun's immense gravitational pull, which draws around it not only planets but also comets and our remarkable asteroid belt. Each chapter, each planet, reduces the importance of Earth in the heavenly map.

But there is one place where Earth does stand at the center, and that's in the very uniqueness of its inhabitants. ''The Planets" is about the way people have observed the world in which they live. From trying to gauge the distance of Earth from the sun using the transit of Venus as a guide, to measuring the distance between Saturn's rings using the Cassini spacecraft, witnessing the heavens is our exclusive privilege.

Science and religion navigate phenomena in their own ways. Science explains how Venus blazes so brightly at dusk. Religion uses the stars to tell a story about ourselves. ''The Planets" reveals the need for all the ways we talk about the universe, but reminds us that without science, we would still see ourselves in the center of something that actually does quite well on its own.

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