Skip to main content

The Sun Kings – Stuart Clark ****

Sometimes the ‘puffs’ on a book – the bits of the blurb that are supposed to get you all excited about it because other people liked it – actually turn you off. I found this a tiny bit here. ‘Undoubtedly the most gripping and brilliant popular-science (sic) history account that I have ever read,’ exudes Owen Gingerich. If that’s the case, he hasn’t read widely enough. But that shouldn’t be taken as put-down of Stuart Clark’s book. It certainly is very good, but just isn’t quite from the absolute best.
This is a history of post-renaissance attempts to understand the Sun and its effect on the Earth. Like all good popular histories of science, it as much about the people as the science itself – in this, mostly British characters who speculated and wrestled with the stranger aspects of observing the Sun, particularly around sunspots, flares and magnetic storms. The most dramatic of the personal histories is that of Richard Carrington, who appears in the rather Victorian subtitle ‘The unexpected tragedy of Richard Carrington and the tale of how modern astronomy began.’ In part Carrington’s tragedy was the difficulties he had in getting round to his astronomy (the sort of difficulties, like being distracted by owning a brewery, that many would now cherish), but the big one was the disastrous affair of his wife, whose ‘brother’ turned out to be nothing of the kind, and who attempted to kill both her and himself in a knife attack, a personal history that is rivalled only by Eadweard Muybridge’s murder of his wife’s lover (see The Man Who Stopped Time).
Generally speaking both the historical context and the gradual realization of what was happening on the Sun and how it influenced our world is well realized. The only time it really doesn’t quite work is when Clark is detailing contemporary reports of the aurorae during solar storms – these just go on too long and really don’t add much to the narrative.
Although one or two old friends like the Herschels pop up, there are plenty of new characters in this saga that have relatively infrequently cropped up in other popular histories of science – altogether, it’s best just to ignore the overblown jacket and enjoy this for what it is – a good, solid example of it type.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Crashing Heaven (SF) - Al Robertson ****

There's an engaging mix of powerful thriller and science fiction in this impressive novel. After the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, human life is limited to vast space station. Our central character, Jack, has a symbiotic artificial intelligence, Hugo Fist, designed to destroy other AIs in a mysterious collective that is said to have committed an atrocity - but with a kick in the tail that because of an unbreakable contract, Fist will take over Jack's body in a few weeks' time.

Al Robertson packs remarkable technology concepts into the cyber side of this story, from AI corporations that act as a pantheon of gods to the 'puppet' that is Fist (he usually come across as a virtual cross between Mr Punch and an evil ventriloquist's dummy). Robertson does all the cyber stuff so well that it's easy to miss that this is, in effect, a myth in electronic clothing - you could substitute the myths of 'real' Greek gods and magic for what happens here. Alt…

The Science of Food - Marty Jopson ****

This is a tasty little volume, packed with kitchen-based science. I must admit, when I saw that the author was the One Show's science expert and Marty Jopson's author photo has that 'Hey, I'm a mad scientist, kids!' look, my heart fell - I was sure the book would be the written equivalent of a 'Wow, look, aren't I clever, I can make this go bang!' science show - but, in fact, it's packed full of (appropriately) meaty scientific content.

I was really pleased that Jopson didn't stick purely to the chemistry of cooking, but launched with the working of some familiar kitchen gadgets - there was genuinely fascinating reading to be had about apparently humdrum equipment in the form of the physics and materials science of a knife and chopping board. And Jopson took us into industrial kitchens too, to reveal, for example, the remarkable process required to make puffed wheat.

Inevitably, the chemistry of cooking - how, for example, proteins denature and em…