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Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this was particularly obvious on the section on eating seaweed. Although I'm not a fan of the stuff, I can see the dietary appeal of seaweed, and eating algae and the processes of growing it could easily have sustained 20 pages - but instead we get 76 (with passing mentions elsewhere).

The other issue was one of timing. I happened to read this book soon after Mike Berners-Lee's There is No Planet B and Seth Wyne's SOS. Given that Kassinger makes a big (and sensible) point on the need to take action on climate change, I'm just not comfortable any more with popular science titles where the author jets from location to location just to talk to do research and have an experience. The reality is that a single long haul return flight has the same carbon footprint as around one third of a UK citizen's footprint for a whole year. We can't lecture people on climate change and continue to fly like this.

Berners-Lee also makes the point that biofuels are a ludicrously inefficient way to harness the Sun's energy. An electric car could get 200 times the range out of the solar energy from a field as a petrol car could from the fuel produced from it. The figures may differ a little for algae - but not that much. Kassinger makes the point that we will still need fuel for ships and planes, but hydrogen is likely to be a far better alternative than carbon fuels where using these is necessary.

Despite these concerns, there's a lot to like in this book and I'm glad I read it.
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Review by Brian Clegg 

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