Heliophage


Review: Jim Endersby in the Sunday Telegraph
October 16, 2007, 11:12 am
Filed under: Reviews received

A thoughtful (and wonderfully positive) review which, like The Economist’s, goes long on the entropy angle. Surprisingly for the Telegraph, which is meant to be all media to all people these days, it is not on line, at least not yet. (In print, though, it has a very striking sunflower picture, so I’ve prettied up this entry with something similar). Update 18/x/07: the whole review is now online (though without sunflower). Here’s how it begins:

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Victorian physics was the formulation of the laws of thermodynamics and in particular the first law, which states that energy is conserved; it can neither be created nor destroyed, only converted from one form (such as the chemical energy locked up in coal) into another (the heat that powers steam engines). The ‘dark side’ of thermodynamics, as Oliver Morton puts it in his highly original study of photosynthesis, is entropy. The conversion is never completely efficient: whenever energy is converted from one form to another, some of it decays from an organised form (in which it can do work) to a disorganised one (in which it cannot).

Here’s his conclusion:

sunflower by joolz perryPhotosynthesis is, as Morton eloquently describes it, ‘an everyday miracle, needing nothing but sunlight, air and leaves — and eyes taught to make sense of them’. This book will, quite literally, change the way you see the world as it teaches you to understand the importance of that everyday miracle that we all depend on.

In among the kind words leading to this, Endersby also expresses some doubts about the workings of the book’s first part.

Morton has opted to break the photosynthetic process down into its various components and explain how each of them was discovered, which results in a series of chapters in which the reader is constantly brough up to date with one part of the story and then sent back to an earlier period to follow the parallel but distinct story of another part of the sun-eater’s intricate machinery. Despite Morton’s immense expertise and exemplary clarity, the story is occasionally a confusing one.

However, once the history and basic principles of photosynthesis are out of the way, Eating the Sun really takes off, ranging from the search for life on other planets to the Gaia hypothesis and the historic role of plants in making this planet habitable. Morton is as compelling and eloquent in describing the evolution of landscape as he is at describing the evolution of life itself.

The idea that the book lifts off late is one that I have come across elsewhere (Andrew Brown makes it too, in the most generous way possible) and I can see the sense of the critique. I’ll have to think more about whether I could have managed the narrative more elegantly, and whether my feeling that the first part of the book needs to be as it is in order for the last part to work is really justified.

I don’t know Jim Endersby, but we turn out to have a lot in common, including the HPSLewes arms department at Cambridge (his connection more eminent than my undergraduate sojourn) and living by the South Downs (he’s a lecturer at the University of Sussex). Like Mapping Mars, his first book has been long listed for the Guardian First Book Award (A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology, Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com) and received a recent review by Georgina Ferry. I think I should probably buy him a pint of Harveys.

Image from Joolz Perry under a creative commons licence with thanks

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