The Sun has always had pride of place in our little corner of the universe, and also an almost indescribably important role in our religions, myths and art. In recent centuries, scientists have discovered much that is fascinating about the Sun but have barely started to understand what makes it behave in the way it does.
The Sun: A Biography is a very ambitious book, in which astronomer David Whitehouse attempts to set down the history of the Sun and our perennial obsession with it. Does he succeed? I think he certainly does; The Sun is not a textbook and is written for the general reader, but Whitehouse brings the subject marvellously to life and in no way dumbs it down for us non-scientists.
Despite the chapters dealing with solid subjects such as radiation, magnetism and optics, it is difficult not to feel, after reading this book, that the gigantic object that dominates the solar system is some sort of gargantuan living creature with its quirks, appetites and mysterious moods.
Whitehouse traces the history of solar astronomy back to its prehistoric origins and places like Sliabh na Caillighe (or the “Hill of the Witch”) at Loughcrew in Ireland, where an eclipse was recorded in 3340 BC. He brings us up to date with the SolarMax and Soho satellites and then takes us into the remote future, when our descendants may one day have to deal with the necessity of moving the Earth’s orbit further out to avoid death by fire as the Sun starts to expand.
Along the way, we meet the people who, over the centuries, have watched the Sun and made records and theories of solar phenomena in manuscripts, books and treatises. And there are some notable figures, from Newton, who made a reasonable estimate of the Sun’s mass, to Galileo, who observed the Sun directly through a telescope at sunset and was lucky not to injure his eyesight, to Sir Arthur Eddington, whose fussy appearance belied a brilliant mind, and whose observations confirmed Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
My favourite character is the eccentric Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland, who in 1906 demonstrated that particles from the Sun cause vast electric currents flowing around the Earth and create the aurorae. He was also the inventor of the electromagnetic rail-gun and was partial to wearing a fez and pointy red leather slippers.
But what this book demonstrates is that no one individual ever solves more than a fraction of the Sun’s riddles. It is always a joint effort, with scientists continually building on the knowledge of their peers and of those who went before them. It is as if the Sun is a vast jigsaw puzzle, with an astronomer finding a piece here, a physicist finding a piece there, and gradually a big picture taking shape.
The puzzle is still incomplete, though, especially in the mysterious area of sunspots, first depicted in a drawing from 1128 AD, and studied by men whose names are still associated with sunspot cycles and grand minima (when sunspots have all but vanished from the solar disc) – Schwabe, Sporer, Wolf and Maunder.
We still have a lot to learn about sunspots and are indebted to American solar physicist Jack Eddy, who rediscovered Edward Maunder’s observations which had been neglected and half-forgotten for fifty years. These strange, transient phenomena may well hold the key to the way the Sun affects the Earth’s great climate shifts.
The book covers vast territories of time and space, touching on many diverse and interesting subjects, from solar sails to Stradivarius violins (which may owe some of their uniqueness to the quality of maple and spruce wood during the Little Ice Age.) Social history is here too, for instance in the story of astronomer Annie Jump Cannon who devised the spectral classifications of stars that we still use today, but was not formally recognised by the academic establishment until just two years before her retirement in 1938.
There is just so much here to enjoy – physics, history, astronomy, biography, poetry by Shelley and Tennyson, plus David Whitehouse’s own very accessible prose. If you are a non-scientist but, like me, are greatly interested in science and the universe around us, I think you will find The Sun: A Biography a wonderful, even inspiring read.
And you might just find your attitude towards that great big yellow thing in the sky has subtly and forever changed.
© Alex Cull, 6th June, 2008
(This is a book review I posted on Planet Bookworm early in June 2008.)