Friday, July 22, 2011

The Sun's Heartbeat: And Other Stories from the Life of the Star that Powers Our Planet, by Bob Berman--A Review

Little, Brown, and Company, ISBN 9780316091015, July 2011

This is a highly readable account of the science of our nearest and most important star, and the stories behind how we have learned all that we know about it. Berman starts with such basics as how we tracked the Sun's movement through our sky and how it governs our agricultural year, to figuring out that it was Earth, not the Sun, that moved, to the latest very startling and disquieting observations of changes in the Sun and how those changes affect us.

And he does it all with stories, stories of the people making the discoveries and creating the new theories, and stories of the events that affected them. He also does it with humor, and had me chuckling, or snickering, or smiling, every few pages.

Granted, his humor won't do that for everyone. It's both irreverent and bone-dry. Some examples:
Nothing outside of a birth or an IRS audit can produce such sobbing or reverential silence like a total solar eclipse or the fabled northern lights.
Every rainbow is an arc, meaning part of a circle. And every circle has a center. Well, what occupies the center of every rainbow? Think about it, and don't say a pot of gold. (That's located at the end of the rainbow.)
Concerning what to do if you see the beginnings of an aurora borealis appearing:
If you see this, phone everyone you know no matter the hour--a 2:00 AM aurora call may even be appreciated by your ex and her new spouse. (Then again, maybe not.) 
Regarding the pervasiveness of neutrinos, and how long it took to detect them:
Neutrinos from the Sun are far and away the most prevalent things in our lives; nothing else even comes close. And yet they remained undetected until 1968, the year the Beatles went to India (although the two events are generally regarded as unrelated.)
If these don't get even a hint of a smile from you, you might not enjoy this book as much as I did. Nevertheless, it would be a fascinating and enjoyable read even without that.

Berman doesn't just cover the science of the Sun itself, in isolation. He covers the medical implications (why we worry too much about sunlight exposure, use "sunscreen" that's useless, and need to take more vitamin D), why seeing a total eclipse of the Sun will change your life (and why the fact that they happen is one of the freaky strange coincidences of the universe), and the complicated relationship between the Sun, the current shape of Earth's orbit, and climate change (the Sun's behavior doesn't explain our current global warming, but it has helped to mask the effect and make it harder to convince people there's a problem.)

This is an altogether excellent book, that covers an enormous subject--the Sun and our relationship with it--in clear, readable, enjoyable terms.

Highly recommended.