26 February 2018 Reviews

Exploring the Planets – A Memoir

It’s not unusual to read about the leading lights of the American space programme, either in history books or biographies; it is rare to read a memoir from a British space scientist who served at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the early part of his career and this provides an interesting perspective. Fred Taylor spent the first decade of his esteemed career at JPL as Principal Investigator on the Pioneer Venus orbiter, which made the first systematic study of meteorology on Venus. Its pressure modulator radiometer, built in Oxford, was the first piece of British hardware to be sent to another planet, a “remarkable achievement”, says Taylor “that remains uncelebrated to this day”.

It was clearly a formative part of his career but he also recalls the culture shock of a different country. “The idea that it was a crime to cross the road anywhere I pleased astonished me,” he writes, “after years of waltzing through the traffic of Oxford.” Along with jaywalking, it seems he also fell fowl of laws that said “a car capable of over 150 miles per hour is only legal if driven at 65 mph or less” - but then we are talking about a man with a Mustang who upgraded to an Aston Martin DB5 for his daily transportation! Along with plenty of science, the book is dotted with anecdotes and personal nuances such as these.

When he came to clear out his office after retiring, Taylor realised he’d been involved with probes to all of the planets out to Saturn, with the Moon and a comet thrown in for good luck - and this was the genesis of his memoir. The resulting book is illustrated with colour and monochrome photographs, many from the author’s personal collection, and benefits from a short glossary and a reasonable index. It is well written and accessible to non-scientists.

Space is an international subject and, for many reasons, geographical borders and nationalities are often irrelevant. But in a subject that is – for good reasons – centred on the US, it is refreshing to find an Anglo-centric view. For me, a book that features photographs of Patrick Moore and the TARDIS on the same page makes the point very well.

Mark Williamson

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