Sunday, 27 August 2006

Children of the Sun – Alfred W. Crosby *****

We all know that the Sun is responsible for our light, and most of us would throw in our warmth as well, but Alfred Crosby’s sweeping adventure of a popular science book reminds us that in fact we owe practically all our energy to the Sun. Through each of the phases of the book, looking at energy from our own muscles (burning plant life, which gained energy from the Sun), from steam power (typically burning coal, which was plant life) through internal combustion (yes, oil from plant life) we have been dependent on the Sun’s energy.
Hydroelectric power? From the Sun, of course, evaporating water that can fall as rain to fill the reservoir behind the dam. Wind power? The Sun again, which powers the weather. The only rogue contributors are nuclear, wave power and geothermal (and a lot of that heat came from the Sun).
By now you should get the idea that this is really a celebration of humanity’s relationship with energy, most of which has come from the Sun, looking both at the ways we produce energy and the ways we use it – these days at a huge rate. Crosby isn’t afraid to spend significant time in building the picture. The first section spends a long time on agriculture, our taming of both plant and animal sources of energy, and later steam gets some equally interesting consideration. At the end he points out that wind and wave aren’t going to do everything we want. So the choice is stark. Give up what we want to do (not much sign of that), or bite the nuclear bullet. He goes on to give a rare balanced picture of the pros and cons, and leaves us with a touch of hope for nuclear fusion.
There are a couple of small concerns. Crosby’s style sometimes veers to the pompous. Take this example, where he explains that he will finish most chapters with a touch of detail: “As an amulet against oversimplification, at the end of most of the following chapters I will add a coda about a person or event with the texture and grain of specificity (and occasionally with something that may even contradict my most recent pontifical pronouncement).” Although largely his sweeping style is quite effective, drawing the reader through dramatic technological developments with ease, it can sometimes result in oversimplification that verges on error. Edison, for instance, is proclaimed the inventor of the electric light bulb, despite his losing the patent priority dispute to Swan.
The other irritation is the use of dates. It’s bad enough to go for the painful political correctness of BCE and CE rather than BC and AD, but the dates here aren’t even consistent. Much of the text uses BP (before present, we presume), but the illustrations are labelled BCE/CE. Then the text strays into BCE/CE as well, and just to add piquancy there’s at least one AD thrown in, presumably by accident.
However these details really don’t matter. This is one of those books that you can love despite – almost because of – it’s faults. And I do. It’s excellent.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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