Astronomy facts

F astonished me yesterday, on our way to ‘s, by announcing: “On the planet Mercury, there is no day or night. Mercury always has the same side facing the Sun. This side is always light and hot, the other always dark and cold.”

I gently put him right, and further investigation revealed that he was quoting word for word from Marie Neurath’s Let’s Look at the Sky, passed on to us by his grandmother, who won it as a prize in a Farmer’s Weekly competeition, shortly after it was published in 1952. I am looking through the book now, to find out what other out-of-date information from over half a century ago is corrupting our child’s mind.

Having said that, he had in fact read somewhere else that Mercury’s year is 88 days and its rotation period is 59 days; he just hadn’t quite realised that this was inconsistent with the information from the first book, which is, of course, written in terms a six-year-old finds easier to understand, as well as being a better story, just wrong (as we have known since 1965).

Some of the sf stories of yesteryear depended on Mercury’s supposed behaviour – the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction lists Clifford D. Simak’s “Masquerade” (1941), Isaac Asimov’s “Runaround” (1942), Lester Del Rey’s Battle on Mercury (1956), Asimov’s Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury (1956), Mission to Mercury (1965) by Hugh Walters, Alan E. Nourse’s “Brightside Crossing” (1956) (of course), Larry Niven’s “The Coldest Place” (1964), and Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan (1959), not to mention Lionel Fanthorpe’s first published book, Menace from Mercury (1954); add to that, from Wikipedia, Asimov’s “The Dying Night” (1952), Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in the Sky (1956) and Ray Cummings’ Tama of the Light Country and sequel Tama, Princess of Mercury (Wikipedia says 1966 but in fact first published in 1930-31).

That’s a dozen novels and short stories in the quarter century from 1940 to 1965 (not even counting the Cummings efforts). I have to say I can’t think of anything like that number of stories and novels set on the planet, published in the 40 years since we found out what its real rotation period is (David Brin’s Sundiver, Ckarke’s Rendezvous with RamaBlue Mars (1996) and, barring TV and film, that’s it). The old story may not have been true, but it was perhaps more beautiful.

(Hmm. Anyone remember Kinvig? Never mind.)

(PS – did you know that the entire Mariner 10 book is on-line thanks to NASA?)

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1 Response to Astronomy facts

  1. nwhyte says:

    Well done. You get a big wet sloppy kiss from me, next time we meet!

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