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July Books 14) Asteroids: A History

12) Asteroids: A History, by Curtis Peebles

Asteroids are another long-standing interest of mine. Back in my teenage years I participated in two of the International Astronomical Youth Camps, working on asteroids in Bavaria in 1984 and on meteors in Slovenia in 1985. (Excessive consumption of sljivovic meant that I saw double meteors one evening…) And some day I shall properly write up my semi-successful search for the asteroid 132 Æthra.

This is a good book, but infuriatingly a bit thin on scholarship. There isn't a single reference to any article published in an academic history of science journal. I found this truly bizarre. More than half the references are to articles in Sky and Telescope, which is all very well, but has the academic community working on history of science completely ignored this topic? And perhaps a few references to the primary scientific literature might have been helpful?

Having said that, Peebles' heart is clearly in the right place. There's a whole chapter about the politics of street-lighting in San Diego, California, which is of marginal relevance to the history of asteroids but of great interest to those of us interested in the science/politics interface. There's a chapter on the naming of asteroids, which ends with the emphatic statement that "Mr Spock is a mythological figure." There's lots of interesting circumstantial detail on the personalities and life experiences of those who participated in the search for asteroids.

The scientific point I was left wondering about was the hardness of the boundaries between asteroids, comets and dwarf planets. The book was published before the recent downgrading of Pluto, but it's pretty clear that Pluto is in the same continuum of objects as Neptune's moon Triton – they just happen to orbit different primaries – and that at the other end of the scale various asteroids are pretty comet-like and vice versa, including the case of Comet Wilson-Harrington, now reclassified as asteroid 4015 Wilson-Harrington.

Free skiffy story idea, which I shall never get around to writing up: Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 1, famous for having a relatively circular orbit (for a comet) and suffering occasional inexplicable flare-ups of brightness, is really and Alien Space base left behind by the first intelligent species to explore our system. (Yeah, I know, Gateway, etc. But I think my version is subtly different.)

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