Skip to main content

Rebel Star - Colin Stuart ****

It would only be fair to expect that we knew everything there is to know about our friendly neighbourhood star, the Sun. After all, without it we certainly wouldn't be here, it's extremely close in astronomical turns and it has been studied for millennia. Yet, as Colin Stuart reveals, there's plenty we still don't know - and of the bits we do apparently know, I was amazed how much was new to me.

I suspect that solar missions and research just don't get the same level of media coverage as, say, missions to Mars with the potential for long-term manned exploration. We are, after all, never going to send people to the Sun. But there are some great stories about attempts to find out more about what is, inevitably, an inhospitable environment. So, for example, Stuart tells the fascinating tale of the Solor and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) mission. Launched at the end of 1995, a human error turned the satellite into a $1 billion piece of space junk... or so it seemed. The efforts to get it back going and the final outcome make great reading.

The first part of the book fills in the history of our understanding of the Sun and how it works, while more of the rest covers areas where research is still current and our understanding still remains partial. A lot of this part concentrates on what's going on in the Sun's outer layers and the solar wind and coronal mass ejections that are propelled out from it, sometimes in our direction, which has can have a potentially dire impact on a world dependent on electronics and satellites.

I learned a lot here, and Stuart's enthusiasm is clear. If I have a negative it's that this enthusiasm perhaps carries him away sometimes to give us rather more detail on some of the more abstruse aspects of the complex electromagnetic phenomena that shape sunspots, produce solar flares and more. Similarly, although the likes of Alfven waves and magnetohydrodynamics are essential in getting an understanding what's going on we get, perhaps, a little too much detail for a book aimed at a general audience.

However, if things do get a little over-detailed sometimes, we're soon back to finding out about new and interesting discoveries. Stuart starts most chapters with a scene-setting narrative and throughout the book is packed with information and delights.
Hardback 

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Patricia Fara - Four Way Interview

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She was the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes. She also contributes articles and reviews to many popular magazines and journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary SupplementHer new book is Erasmus Darwin.

Why history of science?
I read physics at university, but half-way through the course I realised that had been a big mistake. Although I relished the intellectual challenge, I was bored by the long hours spent lining up recalcitrant instruments in dusty laboratories. Why was nobody encouraging us to think about the big questions – What is gravity? Does quantum mechani…

The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is

The Search for Life on Mars - Elizabeth Howell and Nicholas Booth ***

From the book’s enticing subtitle, ‘The Greatest Scientific Detective Story of All Time’, I was expecting something rather different. I thought the authors would kick off by introducing the suspects (the various forms life might take on Mars, either now or in the past) and the kind of telltale traces they might leave, followed by a chronological account of the detectives (i.e. scientists) searching for those traces, ruling out certain suspects and focusing on others, turning up unexpected new clues, and so on. But the book is nothing like that. Continuing with the fiction analogy, this isn’t a novel so much as a collection of short stories – eleven self-contained chapters, each with its own set of protagonists, suspects and clues.

Some of the chapters work better than others. I found the first three – which despite their early placement cover NASA’s most recent Mars missions – the most irritating. For one thing, they unfold in a way that’s at odds with the cerebral ‘detective story’ na…