APS News

Book Review

by Ben Stein, American Institute of Physics

The Third Planet: Exploring the Earth from Space
by Sally Ride and Tam O'Shaughnessy (Crown Publishers, 1994)

Winner of this year's AIP Science Writing Award for books and articles intended for children, The Third Planet is a beautiful Shuttle's-eye slide show of our planet. A collaboration between the first woman astronaut Sally Ride and science teacher Tam O'Shaughnessy, The Third Planet provides stunning views of the Earth at different wavelengths. Through the pictures, the authors introduce the young audience to key features of our land, sea, and air, while informing them of vexing problems such as ozone depletion and population growth. Filled with interesting information about our planet, this is a book that every budding APS member should read.

The style of the book is straightforward: the authors introduce a topic such as hurricanes, describe it, and then explain the accompanying photo or photos. It opens with Ride's recollections of her view of our planet from the Space Shuttle. Her description would make most Earth-bound residents envious. "The view was spectacular. I watched a huge hurricane swirling in the Atlantic Ocean, and an enormous dust storm blowing across the entire Sahara Desert."

Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but the words in this book are pretty valuable in their own right. Concise and descriptive, the text occasionally matches the splendor of the photos - not an easy feat. Under a sweeping picture of a river delta, for example, the authors write: "From space, the Mississippi River delta looks like a giant bird's foot. The mighty river collects soil and nutrients as they drain off the land, and carries them to sea."

A description of the shuttle and unmanned satellites provides a launching pad into a sidebar on orbits. This sidebar, like the several others in the book, is well-handled. Artists' illustrations show how satellites can pass over different parts of the Earth on each orbit because of the Earth's rotation on its own (different) axis. The text clearly describes a spacecraft in orbit: "As it is falling, the satellite is traveling so fast toward the horizon that it always misses hitting the Earth and instead 'falls around' the planet." Other sidebars cover the wavelike nature of light and the electromagnetic spectrum, describing how different parts of the spectrum can provide different types of information on our planet.

The selection of photos is superb. Pictures of Hurricane Kanysi, a storm over the Atlantic Ocean, display its furiously swirling winds yet also capture the motionless eerie calm of its eye. A false color view of the Atlantic Ocean shows the Gulf Stream spreading its heat across the ocean like a fiery tongue. A photo of the Middle East clearly displays the geological rift that is opening between Israel and Jordan. A composite night view of the Earth exhibits the blurring of light between neighboring cities in congested regions.

But the book does not merely aim to elicit wonder and astonishment with its pictures. To its credit, it addresses matters of global concern and issues of conscience. For instance, it describes how the growth of the human population now requires food to be grown in parts of California where fresh water must be pumped for miles. It recounts how human destruction of mangrove forests at the border of India and Bangladesh has cause the delta to erode, no longer protected by the elements.

The book undoubtedly directs some of its message at adults, as it continuously extols the virtues of taxpayer-funded views of the Earth. Satellites, we are reminded, can warn people about hurricanes hundreds of miles away. Orbiting probes can continuously monitor rain forests for illegal logging activities. Pictures of the ever-changing water levels of lakes along the Nile River can help people manage their water. And so on.

But this can be forgiven. Perhaps taxpayers need to be reminded of the benefits. At the time that I'm writing this, NASA's Mission to Planet Earth, a $7 billion program that would launch small spacecraft to study global change, is under the threat by the new Congress of a $2.5 billion cut and "radical" restructuring, moves that NASA officials fear would kill the program. That would be a shame. Satellite studies of the Earth are a worthy scientific enterprise with the side benefits of producing beautiful pictures that inspire and inform all of us. With this book, they might produce a few scientists as well.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin