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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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