Skip to main content

Chasing the Sun – Richard Cohen ****

The tagline to this book is ‘the epic story that gives us life’ and that word epic gives pause for thought. It has good connotations (‘an epic adventure’ or just the modern adjective ‘epic!’) – but equally it can suggest a monster tome that is going to be a bit of a drag. Time will tell.
What Richard Cohen sets out to do is give a comprehensive if personal exploration of humanity’s relationship with the sun, from science to religion, sunlight to gravity. It surely is a subject that deserves this kind of treatment, and parts of this book are wonderful in the way they provide so many factoids and quite interesting (in the QI sense) deviations into all sorts of very slightly sun-related areas. I could pick out so many, but one little part that caught my fancy was a collection of early 20th century beliefs about strong sunlight, including the need to wear flannel spine pads, as the sun was thought to damage the backbone, and the requirement to wear hats indoors in buildings with metal roofs as the sun was thought to be able to penetrate iron.
From all the source books listed, this clearly is a tome that has been researched in great depth, but for me the book was too long. At 610 fairly large pages before you reach the source notes, it goes on and on. Sometimes this comes through in the examples, which can stretch out into rather long lists. Also it worries me that we get far more on the description of the other people who went to watch a solar eclipse from the Antarctic with the author, than we do about the work of Bequerel and the Curies combined, which just doesn’t seem right.
The other slight concern is that the author can be a little hand-waving about the science. There is sometimes the feeling that you are reading something written by someone who is fluent in a foreign language. He gets most of it right, but it doesn’t always feel natural. Just to pick out a couple of examples:
We hear that nuclear reactor ‘cones’ purposely imitate the lingam shape of Hindu temple domes. What cones? How do they imitate lingams? For that matter why does he say these cones are the latest tribute the Sun’s potency? What’s the connection?
He says the division of degrees (of angle) into 60 minutes and those into 60 seconds is a method ‘curiously close to that of a modern computer.’ In what way?
He tells us the neutron is ‘the most common form of particle lurking inside virtually all nuclei’ – most common how? What about neutrinos? Or all those hydrogen nuclei? What about quarks, for that matter?
Don’t take my concerns too negatively. There is plenty to enjoy in this book, both in quirky exploration of humanity’s attitude to the sun and in the author’s obvious enthusiasm. The contents are often fascinating, and I think will particularly appeal to arty types who may have previously been scared by science, but to have made a five star popular science book it would have been better at half the length with a touch more certainty about the science.

Paperback:  


Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under