Heliophage


Review: Jeremy Cherfas in the Sunday Times
December 10, 2007, 4:37 pm
Filed under: Reviews received, Uncategorized

jeremy cherfasA page in the Culture section full of kind words and interesting takes by Jeremy (pictured). I’d love it even if all there was was the pull quote:

“I enjoyed this book as much for the crazed asides as for the upsetting insights.” Excerpts:

Oliver Morton has chosen, by his own admission, to write three books in one… Each informs the others, to some extent, but with a little filleting each would also stand alone, and perhaps a lesser writer would have gone for three safer, smaller books. Morton is not one for safe and small.

He gives us the big picture, and no mistake, whether he is tunnelling into the extremely intricate workings of the molecular photo-synthetic machinery or striding over the South Downs to explain the planet’s long journey from the almost lifeless waters of the late Permian ocean (250m years ago) via the shallow seas of the Cretaceous (100m years ago), through the rise of the grasses (8m years ago) to the Battle of Lewes (271,549 days ago, as I write). At times this tendency makes for jarring disjuncts, as one swoops from electron transfers to a lyrical cycle ride to the Cambridgeshire garden of a photosynthesis pioneer. Overall, though, I enjoyed this book as much for the crazed asides as for the upsetting insights…

I didn’t know that alamo is Spanish for poplar, a favourite tree of biofuel boosters. Casually dropping the little factoid that the mesa on which Los Alamos, the facility, sits is surrounded by los alamos, Morton makes his clarion call for a vast and directed scientific effort, a Manhattan Project for the solar age, one that will explore a plurality of options in search of truly renewable energy (and the fuels to store it), and that will allow the entire global population to live like Californians… This is where the detailed understanding of the inner workings of photosynthesis gain importance, for how can we change the world, as required by book three, if we have not understood it, as book one asks us to? I do wonder, though, whether the big picture of molecular machinery might possibly put some people off…If you find yourself skimming Eating the Sun in a bookshop, and you come across one of those scientific graphs, off-putting even with their avowedly user-friendly hand-style lettering, ignore it. Indeed, ignore the whole of book one, if you prefer. That way you can avoid the fascinating detail of photosynthesis, avoid an apoplexy provoked by the realisation that a writer as talented as Morton doesn’t know the difference between a pestle and a mortar, avoid the remembrance of long-forgotten biochemistry lectures, and enjoy an informative, fascinating and thought-provoking read.

Read the whole thing here.

As others have been, Jeremy is unconvinced by the necessity of the more biochemical parts of the book, or unconvinced by the idea of leading with them, or unconvinced of my ability to pull that off. When enough smart people start making a point like that you’d best take it on board… I must say that I had originally thought of putting a note to the reader at the front of the book that would have been very much along the lines of the advice Jeremy provides, somewhat in the spirit of the note on equations that Roger Penrose provides in “The Emperor’s New Mind”, and then worried that it looked arch and preemptively apologetic and decided against it. I may reconsider for future editions. (And FWIW I don’t think that applies at all to the Penrose warning, which sums up how to deal with unwelcome equations embedded in text brilliantly)

Jeremy also sort-of takes me to task a little for not writing enough about agriculture. I can see his point, I think (and appreciate that, for someone who works at the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, it is a pressing one). Maybe there should be more agriculture in the book. In my defence, I suppose I’d say that only rarely is photosynthesis the limiting step in agriculture. Also, there are other pretty good books about future agriculture out there (though I remember not entirely agreeing with it, I’d recommend Colin Tudge’s So shall we reap (Amazon UK | US) ). But I’m all for more better books about food in the future. Indeed I’d love to read the one Jeremy has in mind, if he’d care to write it…

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3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Oliver:

Would like to read your book but the release date for the US is a long ways off. What happened?

peter at managingwholes dot com

Comment by Peter Donovan

Thanks Peter — nothing dire happened, just different schedules with different publishers on different sides of the pond. If you have an amazon account you can buy form the UK, though I confess the dollar exchange rate is not, at the moment, your friend…

Comment by Oliver

[…] Better yet, Oliver has a blog for each of his books, where he collect reviews and responds to them. Thoughtfully. That’s a neat idea. As for not writing enough about agriculture, I too would recommend Colin […]

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