Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Sun's Heartbeat


The Sun's Heartbeat: and Other Stories from the Life of the Star that Powers Our Planet
2011 pages
290 pages

Consider the sun. For thousands of generations, it has loomed over our kind, radiating heat and light down from above, illuminating our lives and stimulating growth. The ancients worshipped the sun, and not without cause:  its description as the giver of life is more literal than poetic.  Such is the strength of the sun that it crosses a chasm of 93 million miles in only eight seconds, and its every fluctuation can have dire consequences for those of living on Earth.  It is all-important, almost mythical -- and only in the 20th century have we truly begun to understand its reality. An inspiration for divine perfection and stability through the ages, the sun is a writhing, chaotic ball, containing energies that stagger the imagination. In The Sun's Heartbeat, Rob Berman reflects on the importance of the sun -- on how our understanding of it has matured through the ages, and how utterly mesmerizing it still is.

We know, of course, that life is impossible without the sun:  the food chain rather depends on it. But how many people appreciate that life as we know it wouldn't even exist without solar energy? Not only is the sun the source of all our energy, but its cosmic rays stimulate the mutations that make evolution possible. And even more fundamentally, our atoms were forged through the life and death of stars:  their pulsing cores turn basic elements into the heavier ones which constitute the planets and ourselves.  Neil deGrasse Tyson, a prominent American astrophysicist, writes that this knowledge makes him want to grab people in the streets and ask -- "Have you heard this?" Berman shares the same excitement about the sun, the same giddy enthusiasm: solar science is clearly kind of awesome to behold.  While his zeal for communicating can be a little awkward of times, like an high school teacher using teenage slang, it's expressed perfectly in the chapters on the aurora and eclipses.  His description of totality is taken with such care that all the fear, reverence, and wonder of the ages is reborn on the page. This is the peak of a work that abounds in captivating  pieces on the history of solar science, starting with Galileo peering at the sun through a telescope and discovering its spots.  Berman conveys to the reader an understanding of the sun framed through a history of our questions about it, and the approach succeeds wonderfully. Its slight weakness in organization is more than overwhelmed by the fascinating information and the passionate way it is presented.

Related:
Storms from the Sun: the Emerging Science of Space Weather,  Michael J. Carlowicz

2 comments:

  1. Sounds excellent. I *definitely* need to read more science! There are a few in my review pile but I need to keep adding to it - at least that's the plan.....

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  2. Yep, it's a good one -- jaw-dropping scale and wonder, without the mind-screwiness of books on astrophysics.

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