Filed under: Reviews received
All the greatest monsters are green. The Incredible Hulk had to turn green before going on the rampage and the Eagle comic featured a supremely evil green being called the Mekon, who was opposed in almost every issue by the chisel-jawed space hero, Dan Dare. One explanation for this odd association of colour with character is that green belongs to the vegetable kingdom. Humanoids have no right to have chloroplasts in their tissues — and if they do have them, well, they are probably not quite right. In the plant world, green is a heroic tint. It’s a measure of the presence of chlorophyll and a sign that an organism captures energy from the Sun to convert it into organic matter. This is the basis of almost all life on the planet, and is arguably the single most important biochemical pathway there is.
Oliver Morton has written a biography of this organic greenery. He takes us on a grand tour from molecules to biosphere, and a very impressive journey it is. He tackles the difficulties of explaining how photosynthesis works … goes on to outline the 3.5-billion-year-plus history of photosynthesis on Earth … no escaping a kind of modified Gaia outlook here: life, nutrient cycles and rock weathering are all locked together in one inescapable dance … very good on what is needed to turn an alga into a land plant, and then to prop up that plant so that it can bathe in air and light to make a tree. The greening of the ancient continents was the final triumph of the chloroplast … proceeds smoothly to an account of climate history … describes with admirable dispassion the different hypotheses detailing how the biological and human world might cope with this challenge … of several recent accounts of what might happen to climate in the next decades, Morton’s is among the most balanced, but I am still left crossing my fingers and recycling a few plastic bags …
Morton’s account of the ubiquitous importance of photosynthesis is an original viewpoint for looking at the world. It is written with verve and an eye for detail. His breadth of scholarship could leave other science writers green — with envy.
I should mention that he also notes he would have liked more diagrams. I should probably also mention that, as it happens, I reviewed one of Richard’s books many moons ago.
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