Skip to main content

Children of the Sun – Alfred W. Crosby *****

We all know that the Sun is responsible for our light, and most of us would throw in our warmth as well, but Alfred Crosby’s sweeping adventure of a popular science book reminds us that in fact we owe practically all our energy to the Sun. Through each of the phases of the book, looking at energy from our own muscles (burning plant life, which gained energy from the Sun), from steam power (typically burning coal, which was plant life) through internal combustion (yes, oil from plant life) we have been dependent on the Sun’s energy.
Hydroelectric power? From the Sun, of course, evaporating water that can fall as rain to fill the reservoir behind the dam. Wind power? The Sun again, which powers the weather. The only rogue contributors are nuclear, wave power and geothermal (and a lot of that heat came from the Sun).
By now you should get the idea that this is really a celebration of humanity’s relationship with energy, most of which has come from the Sun, looking both at the ways we produce energy and the ways we use it – these days at a huge rate. Crosby isn’t afraid to spend significant time in building the picture. The first section spends a long time on agriculture, our taming of both plant and animal sources of energy, and later steam gets some equally interesting consideration. At the end he points out that wind and wave aren’t going to do everything we want. So the choice is stark. Give up what we want to do (not much sign of that), or bite the nuclear bullet. He goes on to give a rare balanced picture of the pros and cons, and leaves us with a touch of hope for nuclear fusion.
There are a couple of small concerns. Crosby’s style sometimes veers to the pompous. Take this example, where he explains that he will finish most chapters with a touch of detail: “As an amulet against oversimplification, at the end of most of the following chapters I will add a coda about a person or event with the texture and grain of specificity (and occasionally with something that may even contradict my most recent pontifical pronouncement).” Although largely his sweeping style is quite effective, drawing the reader through dramatic technological developments with ease, it can sometimes result in oversimplification that verges on error. Edison, for instance, is proclaimed the inventor of the electric light bulb, despite his losing the patent priority dispute to Swan.
The other irritation is the use of dates. It’s bad enough to go for the painful political correctness of BCE and CE rather than BC and AD, but the dates here aren’t even consistent. Much of the text uses BP (before present, we presume), but the illustrations are labelled BCE/CE. Then the text strays into BCE/CE as well, and just to add piquancy there’s at least one AD thrown in, presumably by accident.
However these details really don’t matter. This is one of those books that you can love despite – almost because of – it’s faults. And I do. It’s excellent.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…