Book review: Titan Unveiled, by Ralph Lorenz and Jacqueline Mitton

14 03 2018

Ralph Lorenz is a British-born planetary scientist now working in the USA, with active involvement in several interplanetary missions including the Cassini / Huygens mission to Saturn and its moons. Jacqueline Mitton is a science writer and science consultant who has written or co-written numerous nonfiction books for both adults and children, often with an astronomical focus. Titan Unveiled (2008) is the second of their jointly-authored books on Titan and the Cassini / Huygens mission; the earlier work, Lifting Titan’s Veil (2002) was written (and published) before the mission’s arrival at Saturn.

TitanUnveiled

It’s the nature of newly-uncovered fields of study, or those to which useful access has only recently been acquired, that any book on such a subject will already be at least slightly obsolete by the time of its publication, and Titan Unveiled (Saturn’s Mysterious Moon Explored), published a decade ago now, is certainly not immune to this failing. (Nor, indeed, does it claim to be, with the text having been completed in 2006, approximately midway through the mission’s planned four-year duration and before the contemplation of much of the additional flybys and observations that would be made in the nine extra years the mission’s controllers were able to wring out of Cassini before its demise, last year, in Saturn’s cold and crushing embrace.) The most obvious now-more-well-characterised grey areas within the book are in the maps of Titan, which are still not what one would call ‘high resolution’ but feature many more well-resolved tracts than was the case a decade ago, notable especially in the book’s decidedly sketchy reference to the numerous large lakes and seas (of some blend of methane and ethane) that dominate Titan’s north polar region: these reservoirs, substantially the largest known bodies of surface liquid on Titan, were tentatively discovered only as the book was going to press.

So, one shouldn’t expect Titan Unveiled to be the final word on Titan. But with that proviso, it’s an entertaining and carefully informative work which focusses as much on the task of getting an elephant-sized spacecraft (and the howdah-sized probe to be jettisoned from it) to a large planet a billion miles away, and then have its movements so tightly choreographed as to know exactly where it is at every point in the next several years, as it does on the planetary knowledge gained from Titan and the other moons in Saturn’s retinue. There are useful and intriguing examples of on-the-fly problemsolving—a large and complicated mission of this type never goes entirely to plan—and numerous personal anecdotes giving a scientist’s-eye view of the planning and execution of a mission of this type. This vicarious immersion into the world of observational space science is one of the book’s strengths.

If I have a criticism of the book, it’s that the figures and illustrations come across less well than the text. This is partly a matter of production values—the uncoated paper used for the bulk of the book displays black-and-white diagrams well enough, but greyscale photographs reproduced on the page (and often, intrinsically, not of particularly high contrast to begin with) have a tendency to appear murky and indistinct—and partly of captioning, with the eight-page colour insert (displaying several of the B&W images of the main text in admirably clear colour) completely uncaptioned, and therefore requiring the reader to recollect whereabouts in the book to refer for the analogous (captioned) B&W figure.

Images aside, it’s an interesting document. Lorenz and Mitton communicate often-complex scientific concepts with clarity, and with sufficient explanation and background to ensure that a scientifically-literate generalist reader is not left behind in the complexity. (A good memory for acronyms is an advantage, with devices such as HASI, DISR and VIMS repeatedly referenced; if you’re allergic to acronyms, then spaceflight probably isn’t for you.) It’s an effective and detailed introduction—though necessarily incomplete, as noted—to Titan’s still-somewhat-mysterious terrain, structure, and composition.

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