My first research project as an undergraduate was attempting to determine orbital parameters of some asteroids. I remember being fascinated by these obscure bodies and their mysterious classical names. If I had Dr. Hamilton’s slender volume at that time, some of my questions would have been answered.
The minor bodies of the solar system are an eclectic group with interesting histories, and Hamilton’s volume cracks the door onto this subject. The book (under 70 pages) gives a brief introduction to asteroids (nine pages), but is primarily a catalogue of information– physical characteristics, orbital data, and explanation of name and discovery– for select bodies. There is a lot of interesting information here, but unfortunately none of it is referenced. One example: according to Hamilton, asteroids 300 Geraldina was named by Auguste Charlois, an apparently prodigious asteroid-discoverer who was murdered by a former brother-in-law. There’s obviously a story here, but without references the reader is left with no avenue by which to learn more.
Worse yet is the omission of information related to the objects themselves. Dwarf planets are mentioned (and distinguished by bolding their names), but there is no discussion of their distinction from asteroids. Comets are mentioned without any explanation of how they differ from asteroids and dwarf planets and what this indicates about the physical nature of the solar system. The Yarkovsky Effect is mentioned three separate times without an explanation of what it is.
Finishing the book, I was left with far more questions than I had upon beginning it. Why do some asteroids discovered later have lower numbers than those discovered earlier (i.e., 6312 Robheinlein and 6470 Aldrin, for instance)? Why do some have names consisting of only numbers and letters (2012VP113, for example)? Is Quaoar officially considered a dwarf planet?
A simple response to these might be, “Look it up and find out,” but this leads to my major question regarding this book: in a day when I imagine information about all minor planets is available online somewhere (another reference that would have been helpful in this book), why publish a book with limited information about only a selection of asteroids? It might look on the observatory shelf, but as a catalogue it is inherently incomplete and immediately out of date.
This review first appeared in the September 2015 issue of The Planetarian.