Review: Georgina Ferry in the Guardian
October 2, 2007, 5:01 am
Filed under: Reviews received

A full review, nicely titled “Living colour”, that sets out a lot of what’s in the book. Excerpts:

[For Oliver Morton] the joy of looking at a tree or a landscape comes from knowing, from the level of individual molecules to the level of planetary evolution, how it came to be the way it is … You might think you know all about photosynthesis from secondary school biology lessons. You know that carbon dioxide plus water plus energy from the sun equals glucose plus oxygen. But from the earliest years of the 20th century, scientists were not satisfied with this cookery-book approach, and neither is Morton. The first section of his book introduces the key figures whose experiments arrived at today’s consensus about how photosynthesis really works … Morton enlivens what can at times be a hard read by vividly describing the passions and rivalries that drove the scientists who tracked these elusive games of pass the parcel…

Astrobiologists tend to agree that whatever forms [complex] life might take, on Earth or elsewhere, it will always need oxygen. The trick, then, is to develop telescopes that can detect oxygen in the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars. How many of these there might be, in Morton’s view, is “the biggest question that we currently have it in our hands to answer”…

In his final section Morton looks at the planet since the industrial revolution – the lifetime, perhaps, of an average tree. We cannot understand what impact our activity will have on the climate unless we take into account how plants will react to – and possibly exacerbate – alterations in the carbon, nitrogen and water cycles.

Hard-nosed science writer though he is, Morton does not shrink from the word “crisis” to describe what is going on in our atmosphere. Unlike many in the green movement, he is willing to put his faith in technology to solve the problem, but only given a massive investment of resources and political commitment. If just some of the energy that scientists have devoted to understanding photosynthesis goes into low-carbon technologies, we might just be able to do it. If we fail, it won’t be their fault.


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