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Under The Microscope

DESTINY OR CHANCE -- OUR SOLAR SYSTEM AND ITS PLACE IN THE COSMOS, by Stuart Ross Taylor; Cambridge University Press, 1998; 229pp; $55.95

Reviewed by Mike Hamblyn

This is an exhilarating read. Taylor, a leading planetary researcher, has tried to demonstrate why none of the planets in our solar system resemble one-another.

Taylor's conclusion is that chance collisions on a titanic scale, have determined the size, shape and composition of the planets. The idea that chance collisions shaped the solar system, according to Taylor, puts to rest any idea that we can formulate an elegant equation that explains the structure of our, or any other, solar system.

Taylor begins his task by demonstrating how the planets were built up (like bricks going together to make a house) from Laplace's disk of dust surrounding the early Sun, rather than having been condensed down out of it. From this it follows that Jupiter was never a proto-star but a cloud of dust which, because of its slightly larger size, managed to collect more planetesimals to itself at the expense of Mars and the Earth.

Because titanic and regular collisions regularly wiped out early life on Earth, no over-arching hypothesis can explain planetary formation or the origins of life. From this, Taylor suggests that life is probably unique to Earth and that "blind evolution" determines the form which life takes.

Because chance plays a dominant role in his universe, Taylor dismisses the need for a Divine Creator and it is on this level that Taylor's otherwise convincing book is weakest. Taylor's arguments against the need for God are dated as well as being the sentiments of a determined non-believer who confuses the fact of life in general with the uniquely human need to believe in the existence of a "higher power." Further, he confuses the sometimes unfortunate results of organized religion with the oftentimes beneficial effects of a personal spirituality.

All photographs are in black and white (good for detail) and there aren't any equations thankfully! This book is a timely re-evaluation of much current thinking.

Mike Hamblyn is currently a library manager in Dunedin.