Sunday, 24 February 2008

The Sun Kings – Stuart Clark ****

Sometimes the ‘puffs’ on a book – the bits of the blurb that are supposed to get you all excited about it because other people liked it – actually turn you off. I found this a tiny bit here. ‘Undoubtedly the most gripping and brilliant popular-science (sic) history account that I have ever read,’ exudes Owen Gingerich. If that’s the case, he hasn’t read widely enough. But that shouldn’t be taken as put-down of Stuart Clark’s book. It certainly is very good, but just isn’t quite from the absolute best.
This is a history of post-renaissance attempts to understand the Sun and its effect on the Earth. Like all good popular histories of science, it as much about the people as the science itself – in this, mostly British characters who speculated and wrestled with the stranger aspects of observing the Sun, particularly around sunspots, flares and magnetic storms. The most dramatic of the personal histories is that of Richard Carrington, who appears in the rather Victorian subtitle ‘The unexpected tragedy of Richard Carrington and the tale of how modern astronomy began.’ In part Carrington’s tragedy was the difficulties he had in getting round to his astronomy (the sort of difficulties, like being distracted by owning a brewery, that many would now cherish), but the big one was the disastrous affair of his wife, whose ‘brother’ turned out to be nothing of the kind, and who attempted to kill both her and himself in a knife attack, a personal history that is rivalled only by Eadweard Muybridge’s murder of his wife’s lover (see The Man Who Stopped Time).
Generally speaking both the historical context and the gradual realization of what was happening on the Sun and how it influenced our world is well realized. The only time it really doesn’t quite work is when Clark is detailing contemporary reports of the aurorae during solar storms – these just go on too long and really don’t add much to the narrative.
Although one or two old friends like the Herschels pop up, there are plenty of new characters in this saga that have relatively infrequently cropped up in other popular histories of science – altogether, it’s best just to ignore the overblown jacket and enjoy this for what it is – a good, solid example of it type.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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