Monday, June 27, 2011

The Sun's Heartbeat


Book review time! I don't do many of these because I read SO many books, it's rare that anything hypnotizes me, but this one is a true gem than any space enthusiast must add to their collection. The full title is The Sun's Heartbeat And Other Stories From the Life of the Star That Powers Our Planet by Bob Berman –- whose name you will doubtless recognize from Discover magazine. Yes, that Bob Berman.

As in his columns or speeches, he is humorous and delightfully un-condescending in his sharing of astronomical knowledge (and I mean that in both the literal and adjectival senses!), making this a fluid read. In fact, the fluidity is addictive. I'd planned to read the book next week and review it in July prior to its 7/13 release, but wound up finishing it after just two sittings, quite unable to put it down.

The Sun's Heartbeat"At it's most elemental, the Sun is the sole source of our life and energy... Everything about the sun is either amazing or useful. Beyond the peculiar history of its discoveries by a motley collection of geniuses, it directly or indirectly affects our lives, our health, our emotions, and even our dollars."
~ Bob Berman

As interesting as any biography of a person who lived a long and interesting life, this book unfolds the life of our Sun, and the millennias-long melodrama of our quest to understand this amazing entity, as discovered through the eyes of an esteemed cast of characters: Galileo, Kepler, Halley, Schwabe, Herschel, Pauli, Kirchhoff & Bunsen. Wait... Kirchhoff & Bunsen? Yeah, and you don't know the most stunning discoveries about the Sun until you know their work (proving once again how scientific Zeitgeist often rewards entirely the wrong people).

What makes the sun shine? Recorded history shows we tried to figure that out for about 25 thousand generations. Those of us alive today have known the truest answer for just one human lifetime: the fusing together of hydrogen nuclei, and fusing its helium into heavier elements.

From Babylonian scientists recording sun spots 3 thousand years ago to current climate change debates, through ancient religions and alchemy to modern sciences such as heliophysics and helioseismology, Bob Berman brings alive the Sun's gifts to planet Earth: how we divine the Sun's properties through water, weather and tree rings; the sun's role in the evolution of life forms in terms of how fast mutations occur, as evidenced by fossil records; and, even how petty fights between dueling scientists often led to advancements in the knowledge of our solar god.

Subtitles of the book could easily include Sunscreen 101, the Vitamin D chronicles, Aurora-Chasing, How a Solar Eclipse Can Change Your Life, and Hey, Twenty Trillion Neutrinos Are Slamming Through Your Head Every Second! Really.

Columnist Bob Berman
Berman's new writing gig

Berman lays out the heliophysics in detail; not the dry stuff of textbook mechanics, but rather the dynamic story of superstitions versus experiments, and finally, modern scientific method and measurement. From believing the sun was a deity to understanding the very foundations of what made our solar system possible, he makes the Sun precisely what it is: a STAR!

And he does so with quips and quirky prose that will make you read the lines twice to make sure you are actually reading a science book instead of a Dilbert strip: "Neutrons don't help us and don't hurt us: they're like coleslaw," and "Sagittarius resembles an archer the way I resemble Brad Pitt" are among the LOL moments. And he actually used the words KAPLOOIE and SHAZAM. Awesome. My favorite, to the chagrin of astronauts everywhere, had to be: "Once you venture outside Earth's protective field, your HMO would be wise to stop covering you."

Indeed. So far, this is the geek read of the year. Go find it. :)