Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…