Heliophage


Review: Library Journal
November 3, 2008, 10:56 am
Filed under: Reviews received
Wordle-cloud of Eating the Sun reviews, as of 081101

Wordle-cloud of Eating the Sun reviews, as of 081101

A review in Library Journal by Sara Rutter, of the University of Hawaii Library, which again does me the honour of a star:

Award-winning science journalist Morton’s (Mapping Mars) latest book is a beautiful example of what science writing can achieve and serves as a unique contribution to the public understanding of a research field underrepresented in popular science literature. Providing textbook details of the photochemical and enzymatic events that take place in the chloroplast to produce photosynthesis, Morton writes in clear and graceful prose, augmenting his well-researched facts by telling the fascinating backstory of the research scientists who have added to our understanding of a biological process that is so crucial to sustaining life on Earth. Morton brings to light the sometimes fractious and yet interdisciplinary collaborative groups that worked together across an international landscape to elucidate the mechanisms of photosynthesis. Moving from the molecular level, he explores the impact of plants on our planet, describing paleobotanical research, exobiology, and Lovelock’s Gaian view of Earth. Tying all this together, a final chapter considers the impact of our reliance on fossil fuel, derived from early photosynthesizing plants, on our planet. Strongly recommended for large public libraries and academic libraries.

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Review: Booklist
October 28, 2008, 11:01 pm
Filed under: Reviews received

Another generous review, by Gilbert Taylor (who also had nice things to say about Mapping Mars‘s “appealing blend of science and imagination” way back when), in the American Library Association’s Booklist

Morton’s curiosity-driven ruminations concern photosynthesis in a work imbued with wonder and worry about that biological process. Worry, because anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions outstrip the uptakecapacity of plants; wonder, that they have that ability in the first place. These dueling moods recur throughout Morton’s narrative as he recounts discoveries about photosynthesis, an intricate chemical cascade that daily begins with sunlight and ends in the longest rhythms of geological time. Unshackling the science from its chronological history, Morton opens with the applications of radioactive isotopes such as carbon 14 to investigations of photosynthesis and in due course presents pioneers of plant physiology. At all points, whether through the history books or personal encounters, Morton depicts the discrete problem that piques a scientist or lends a philosophical cast to his scientific motivations, and he seems especially taken by James Lovelock, author of the so-called Gaia theory. Morton is as insightful observing a single tree as he is explaining plant life’s interconnections with the biosphere and the totality of earth history.



Review: Kirkus
October 1, 2008, 7:28 pm
Filed under: By, with or from EtS, Reviews received
wordle-cloud of reviews, as of 081001

Wordle-cloud of Eating the Sun reviews, as of 081001

Another US review for Eating the Sun: Kirkus (sub required). And delightfully, another star!

Meticulous but always engaging account of photosynthesis, the process that makes life possible.

Because most readers probably last encountered that word in high-school biology, science writer and Nature chief news editor Morton (Mapping Mars, 2002) faces a tough challenge in making the subject accessible, but he succeeds magnificently. The pace never flags in more than 400 pages recounting the history of life (essentially the history of photosynthesis) and of how plants convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into plant tissue, the source of animal flesh and food as well as oxygen and much of our landscape and weather. The author reminds us that the animal kingdom reverses photosynthesis. Animals consume oxygen, plants and each other to live, and then they die, decay and revert to inorganic matter, especially water and carbon dioxide. This cycle, stable for billions of years, is now out of whack, he notes. Humans are reversing photosynthesis on a massive scale by burning immense quantities of organic matter (coal, oil, wood), converting it back into carbon dioxide faster than plants can use it or the oceans and atmosphere can absorb it.

That unsurprising bad news comes late in the book. Until then readers will enjoy the author’s biographies of scientists and accounts of research that revealed the specifics of how plants make life happen. Photosynthesis didn’t exist when life appeared well over two billion years ago, but it came soon after; Morton tells us how life probably originated and then delivers a detailed history of plant evolution to the present day. Because he describes these events as well as his scientist subjects’ thoughts, quarrels and experiments in precise detail, this is not a book to skim, but readers willing to take time will not regret it.

Top-notch popular-science writing.

On the skimming point: please feel free to skim if you want to skim. In fact, the US edition includes a new glossary intended to help skimmers figure out what’s going on if they find that in their ecstasy of fumbling they have skimmed right past the introduction of some key concept or other. That said, obviously front-to-back readers are welcome too. Also back-to-front readers. Also people too busy to read at all; this book will give you a thrill of satisfaction through mere ownership. I promise…

US launch is now rescheduled for November 18th, due to a minor snafu. This should hold firm. I’ll try and mention any events associated with it here, and they will have a category all of their own. You can also check out the page at GoodReads, which should have a live calendar.



Review: Publishers weekly
September 14, 2008, 6:42 pm
Filed under: Reviews received

First US review — and it’s starred, which brings great joy.

The cycle of photosynthesis is the cycle of life, says science journalist Morton (Mapping Mars). Green leaves trap sunlight and use it to absorb carbon dioxide from the air and emit life-giving oxygen in its place. Indeed, plants likely created Earth’s life-friendly oxygen- and nitrogen-rich biosphere. In the first part, Morton, chief news and features editor of the leading science journal, Nature, traces scientists’ quest to understand how photosynthesis works at the molecular level. In part two, Morton addresses evidence of how plants may have kick-started the complex life cycle on Earth. The book’s final part considers photosynthesis in relation to global warming, for, he says, the Earth’s plant-based balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen is broken: in burning vast amounts of fossil fuels, we are emitting more carbon dioxide than the plants can absorb. But Morton also explores the possibility that our understanding of photosynthesis might be harnessed to regain that balance. Readers could persevere through (or skim) the more technical discussions in the first part, for what follows is a vast, elegant synthesis of biology, physics and environmental science that can inform our discussions of urgent issues.

US Publication date is now officially 4 November — nothing like a slow news day for getting some attention…



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…



Review: Jim Lovelock in Prospect
November 23, 2007, 8:22 am
Filed under: Books, Earth history, Reviews received

Prospect cover december 2007After my having written about Jim for a couple of decades, Jim now gets to write about me. And he says kind things (for what it’s worth, I think this piece was almost certainly written before I heaped praise on him in Time).

Adverse climate change makes this a most important and timely book—not just for scientists, but for anyone who can think. Oliver Morton writes so engagingly that it reads as a well-crafted biography of the earth on behalf of the plant kingdom, tracing its evolution from tiny cyanobacteria 3.5bn years ago to the giant trees of today. Unlike a botanical text, Eating the Sun reveals the intricate chemical mechanisms by which sunlight is used by plants and how the sun powers everything that matters on earth.

Morton’s book is also about earth science, my own Gaia theory and the lives of the scientists most involved. He explains why Gaia theory is still regarded as a heresy against orthodox science. From my viewpoint he is very fair, especially since many of his witnesses are passionate defenders of orthodoxy

[…]The key to understanding why the earth is growing too hot for comfort is to understand that it is in some sense alive. Morton clearly presents a vision of a living planet, albeit one that would appear eccentric to life scientists … Soon the incremental heating from the earth itself will exceed our inputs and then further heating is unstoppable. Fortunately for us, earth history suggests that positive feedback will come to a natural stop and temperatures will stabilise five degrees above the present. The idea that we can stabilise rising temperature at some convenient level, say just two or three degrees above the pre-industrial norm, is probably the delusion of computer modellers.

[…] What makes this book so good is the way that Morton, as well as dealing with the issues, gives us portraits of the leading personalities. I was especially moved to be reminded of that rare figure Bob Spicer. Spicer is a real naturalist—one who wears muddy boots. Not one of those whose view is limited to a computer screen, like the environmental scientist who once said, “With a click of a mouse I can change the whole earth.” … A few good scientists bring us what Nasa calls “ground truth”—the solid facts we can rely on. Men and women like them grow rarer, as those who manage science believe that research money is better spent on modelling and brainstorming sessions than on messy and dangerous experiments and observations in some distant field. We … seem to have lost the checks and balances that were part of our earlier class-based society, one that scorned egalitarianism but welcomed merit.

Read the whole thing over over at Prospect.

And while logging media coverage, here’s something nice, suprising and odd — an appearance in a “books of the year” list. Nice for the obvious reasons, surprising because the Spectator is not necessarily a place that I would have expected so to appear (and Gary Dexter is not someone I know or know much of) and odd because I doubt anyone else will ever pair me up with Les Dawson (whose work as a science fiction writer had previously passed me by — a good thing, says Langford). But odd doesn’t mean unwelcome, or unininteresting — IDIC, as we say on Vulcan:

I bought Les Dawson’s Secret Notebooks (JR Books, £15.99) to see if it could furnish an explanation of why Les wrote A Time Before Genesis, the only serious fiction he ever produced, a disturbing novel of alien conspiracy, sexual mutilation and global apocalypse. Unfortunately it couldn’t, being mainly scribblings for his show spots and monologues — but it contained some gems of Dawsonian surrealism, such as: ‘I came from a very poor neighbourhood. Petty theft was rife. It got to the stage where we had to brand the greenfly.’ Continuing with the horticultural theme, Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet by Oliver Morton (Fourth Estate, £25) was a timely book. After 400 wide-ranging pages it was difficult to gainsay the author’s conclusion that the best prospect for future energy generation is solar: ‘new technologies that sit in the space between the photovoltaic cell and the leaf’.



Review: Jim Endersby in the Sunday Telegraph
October 16, 2007, 11:12 am
Filed under: Reviews received

A thoughtful (and wonderfully positive) review which, like The Economist’s, goes long on the entropy angle. Surprisingly for the Telegraph, which is meant to be all media to all people these days, it is not on line, at least not yet. (In print, though, it has a very striking sunflower picture, so I’ve prettied up this entry with something similar). Update 18/x/07: the whole review is now online (though without sunflower). Here’s how it begins:

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Victorian physics was the formulation of the laws of thermodynamics and in particular the first law, which states that energy is conserved; it can neither be created nor destroyed, only converted from one form (such as the chemical energy locked up in coal) into another (the heat that powers steam engines). The ‘dark side’ of thermodynamics, as Oliver Morton puts it in his highly original study of photosynthesis, is entropy. The conversion is never completely efficient: whenever energy is converted from one form to another, some of it decays from an organised form (in which it can do work) to a disorganised one (in which it cannot).

Here’s his conclusion:

sunflower by joolz perryPhotosynthesis is, as Morton eloquently describes it, ‘an everyday miracle, needing nothing but sunlight, air and leaves — and eyes taught to make sense of them’. This book will, quite literally, change the way you see the world as it teaches you to understand the importance of that everyday miracle that we all depend on.

In among the kind words leading to this, Endersby also expresses some doubts about the workings of the book’s first part.

Morton has opted to break the photosynthetic process down into its various components and explain how each of them was discovered, which results in a series of chapters in which the reader is constantly brough up to date with one part of the story and then sent back to an earlier period to follow the parallel but distinct story of another part of the sun-eater’s intricate machinery. Despite Morton’s immense expertise and exemplary clarity, the story is occasionally a confusing one.

However, once the history and basic principles of photosynthesis are out of the way, Eating the Sun really takes off, ranging from the search for life on other planets to the Gaia hypothesis and the historic role of plants in making this planet habitable. Morton is as compelling and eloquent in describing the evolution of landscape as he is at describing the evolution of life itself.

The idea that the book lifts off late is one that I have come across elsewhere (Andrew Brown makes it too, in the most generous way possible) and I can see the sense of the critique. I’ll have to think more about whether I could have managed the narrative more elegantly, and whether my feeling that the first part of the book needs to be as it is in order for the last part to work is really justified.

I don’t know Jim Endersby, but we turn out to have a lot in common, including the HPSLewes arms department at Cambridge (his connection more eminent than my undergraduate sojourn) and living by the South Downs (he’s a lecturer at the University of Sussex). Like Mapping Mars, his first book has been long listed for the Guardian First Book Award (A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology, Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com) and received a recent review by Georgina Ferry. I think I should probably buy him a pint of Harveys.

Image from Joolz Perry under a creative commons licence with thanks