Heliophage


Reviews: Boston Globe and Phoenix
November 18, 2008, 1:16 am
Filed under: EtS Events, Published stuff, Reviews received

As I think I mentioned, I’m giving a talk in Boston on Wednesday at the 4th Clean Energy conference, and so it’s  gratifying to have some early interest in the book in Boston nedia. In the Globe, Anthony Doerr pairs Eating the Sun up with The Superorganism, the new ant book by Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson (Amazon UK|US) under the headline “Overlooked Agents of Change” and says excitingly complimentary things.

On the surface, Morton’s new book is about photosynthesis. But to say this doesn’t do “Eating the Sun” justice. Over the course of the last century, with something like quiet heroism, scientists have dissected photosynthesis, illuminating an exquisite symphony of biochemistry. Morton devotes the first third of “Eating the Sun” to charting the thrills of elucidating that symphony. The intricacies of the chemistry in this section get occasionally confusing, but hang in there.

In the latter two sections of the book, Morton starts hitting simpler, more accessible notes, and he hits them beautifully. For all of us who’ve shivered outside on a bitterly cold morning and muttered, “So much for global warming,” “Eating the Sun” helps us understand the immense complexity of what’s really going on.

This book is fundamentally about relationships. To even begin fashioning a model of Earth’s carbon cycle, for example, one has to consider the time of year, the planet’s reflectiveness, oceanic conditions, industrial emissions, and rates of chemical weathering, and a jumble of other factors. Indeed, the air we breathe is a rat’s nest of intersecting loops, where one strand might be wobbles in Earth’s axis, another the water cycle, another the nitrogen cycle, another the sulfur cycle, and so on. “Every change bumps up against another,” explains Morton; “no cause is sufficient in itself.”

…The infinitesimal chemical reactions occurring inside the leaves in your backyard are ultimately connected to the gasoline in your lawnmower and the air over Kathmandu. And “Eating the Sun” elegantly traces the multiple, increasingly skewed reverberations inside that system.

Meanwhile Jim Sullivan at the Phoenix interviewed me about what the conference keynote I’m giving would say.

“I’m by nature not that optimistic,” admits Morton, “but at the same time, I am optimistic about this. Intellectually, the case is pretty good. You have a duty to be optimistic. It’s not in my temperament, but nor it is fake. If you don’t think you can change the future, it’s like you’re not showing up.”

More on my difficulties with optimism here…

Incidentally, the Phoenix piece also quotes me completely accurately on how easy life has been with fossil fuels, because they are such dense and accessible stores of energy. At the broad historical level this is true — but seeing it on screen suggests to me that it could be read as minimising the hard and frequently deadly work of those who actually mine and have mined the coal, and who drill for oil. Not my intention at all.


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