My dear cousin Stephen was chiding me the other day for insufficient self publicity, which leads me to point to Seeing Further (Amazon UK, currently half price), a book of essays celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society which is edited by Bill Bryson and the excellent Jon Turney. Like many far worthier people, I have an essay in this handsome volume. The worthier in question include Bryson himself (excerpted here in the Times), Neal Stephenson, Simon Schaffer, the Margarets Atwood, Wertheim and Gee, Paul Davies, Ian Stewart, John Barrow, James Gleick, Greg Benford, the Richards Holmes, Fortey and Dawkins, Steve Jones, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Phil Ball, Georgina Ferry and Henry Petroski. Bayes, balloons, bridges, lightning, logarithms, monads, maths, museums, X-rays, extraterrestrials and the end of the world…
This superb collection of essays, extensively illustrated, is a fitting tribute [to the Society, which] has had 8,200 members, including Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Ernest Rutherford and Francis Crick: people who radically transformed the way we see the world. As Bill Bryson rightly says, “this isn’t just the most venerable learned society in the world, it is the finest club.”
Mr Bryson or, more plausibly, Jon Turney, who is the contributing editor of the book, did not confine his selection of authors to those known for their scientific writing. Margaret Atwood, an award-winning Canadian novelist, offers her thoughts on the origin of the figure of the mad scientist, and Neal Stephenson, who writes science fiction, explores the point at which physics abuts metaphysics through the work of two great intellectuals, Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz.
As the essays build up we deepen our appreciation of the tensions between experimentation and mathematics, function and abstraction, creation and destruction, simplicity and complexity, harmony and chaos, individual genius and collective endeavour, and scientists and laymen.
All contributors in their different ways also remind us that the show goes on. Do we see more clearly than Hooke and Newton did three and a half centuries ago? Oliver Morton argues that we may have traded one picture of the Earth for another, but our understanding of the globe remains incomplete; Ian Stewart reminds us that for all Galileo’s astuteness, even scientists can be oblivious to the subtle mathematics that underpin their research; John Barrow considers the apparent simplicity of cosmological physics and points out that we do not observe the laws of nature, we see only the outcomes of those laws. “Outcomes are much more complicated than the laws that govern them.”
I should have mentioned this before (self promotion FAIL) but in early August Eating the Sun finally became available in paperback (Amazon UK for £6.99, or any other vendor you choose). New cover goes for a slightly Richard-Mabey-ish vibe, which is probably a good idea; as I’ve said before, the book does have stuff to offer people in the nature writing tradition. That said, the way the word “Sun” ends up as subterranean in this cover treatment does seem a little odd to me. US paperback (with yet another cover) to follow later this fall.
This is a book about “the most important process on the planet”: photosynthesis. Plants grow by “eating the sun”, trapping its energy and using hydrogen from water and carbon from air to produce flowers, fruit and seeds. The “scrap of sunlight” converted into organic matter by the world’s plants each day is equivalent to the energy in the global arsenal of nuclear weapons. But, by releasing the energy locked away some 300m years ago in fossil fuels, we have upset the delicate balance of the carbon cycle and made “the atmosphere itself as artificial as a Capability Brown landscape”. From molecules to the planetary scale, Morton’s beautifully written book reveals how life is made from light. The living landscapes we inhabit are shaped by photosynthesis, and Morton’s sense of wonder at the pervasive influence of this process is nowhere stronger than while walking across the South Downs near his home: “It’s grassland like this, more than any other habitat, that gives us both homes and horizons.” A rich and wide-ranging study.
Having taken these words from The Guardian, I should point out as they would that you can buy the book through their bookshop at the RRP of £9.99, if you like.
Peter Smith, you should know, is among other things one of the best people to follow on twitter
Filed under: Reviews received
This original account of photosynthesis does what every popular-science work strives to do: provide a lucid-to-the-lay-reader explanation of a mundane or complex phenomenon. Yet Morton goes well beyond that laudable achievement. Folded cunningly into his disciplinary synthesis (physics, chemistry, cellular biology, environmental science) and basic explainer (what, exactly, photosynthesis is, and why apprehending “the most important process on the planet” is crucial to our understanding of today’s pressing energy and climate-change issues) is nothing less than a majestic terrestrial biography—a meticulous look at the history and future of the Earth itself. All this is in a well-paced, smartly plotted, bouncingly written package. Buoyed by a tone of optimism and uplift (“The science that enriches our wonder at the world also offers us ways of making things better”), Morton’s clear-eyed assessment makes visible a heretofore unseen world—ours—and illuminates its possibilities.
Filed under: Reviews received
Photosynthesis doesn’t sound sexy, but Morton, a science journalist and the author of the book “Mapping Mars,” has produced an account of it that fuses science with the history of science to convey its enormous, if nearly invisible, grandeur. Beginning with a painstaking explanation of how rubisco, probably the earth’s most common protein, “knits” carbon dioxide into the living tissues of vegetation, the book ranges widely. Its final section takes the reader from the eighteenth-century dissenting preacher and scientific tinkerer Joseph Priestley’s first inkling of the different gases making up the air to the vastly increased carbon emissions of today, and is particularly worthwhile. Morton shows how the content of “air” is the basis for everything we take for granted, and provides both a sense of awe and an extremely useful way to think about global energy concerns and the climate crisis.
What a delightful way to start the year…
A list on which I am delighted to feature…
Among current books about science, my favourite is Oliver Morton’s Eating the Sun (Fourth Estate), which makes a thriller out of photosynthesis. It hasn’t been as easy a read as, say, Andrew Smith’s Moondust, (Bloomsbury) but I already knew something about the Apollo programme. About photosynthesis I knew nothing, or thought I did: now I realize that I knew less than that. Figuring out how plants work isn’t rocket science – it’s a lot more complicated – but if you can do without the countdowns and the space suits, the biology laboratories are where the excitement is now.
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.