This is a blatant attempt to enlist your help over my book on the Sun, which I have at last finished, just five years late, and which comes out on 1 November in the UK (9th in the U.S.), price £30. Apart from the amazing news that already you can buy it on Amazon for just £15, where I need your help is over a talk I am giving at Waterstone's Piccadilly at 7.00 p.m. on Monday 1 November. Not being Nigella Lawson or Tony Blair, I am not sure that anyone is going to turn up - despite the astounding slide show I've put together based on the book. So if by any chance you are free, it would be lovely to have you there. Please come.
The author of a new book, Richard Cohen, charts man's ongoing fascination with our nearest star.
In 1925 Carl Jung visited the Pueblo Indians of Taos, New Mexico, and found himself in conversation with one of their elders. "We are the sons of Father Sun," the old man told him, "and with our religion we daily help our father to go across the sky. We do this not for ourselves, but for the whole world. If we were to cease practising our religion, in 10 years the sun would no longer rise. Then it would be night forever."
Such myths are as old as mankind. Cultures may differ on the sun's gender, or how it has come into being, but every civilisation attempts to make some sense of its power. Always there has been a deep ambivalence: humanity cannot do without the sun, but still wishes to tame or seduce it. That remains true to this day.
Updated below with comments by Piers Corbyn
While parts of Stonehenge, built to face the Midsummer sunrise, date from 2,900BC, not until the Babylonians, around 550BC, did any society record the sun's movements in detail. The Greeks went further, inquiring into its size and shape, how far it lay from the earth, and – along with the planets and the moon – which went around what, and in what order. Their last major astronomer was Claudius Ptolemy (c. AD 90-168), who pronounced that the skies contained 55 crystal spheres, centred on earth – thus maintaining the earth as the most important entity, while taking into account the observations made by early scientists.
The new religion of Christianity, brought to Rome by Emperor Constantine, was happy to adopt Ptolemy's system. The sun, a supreme being residing in a distant heaven, was a perfect analogy for the Christian God. In 354AD the day celebrated as the birth of the sun, when it is close to its lowest point in the sky – December 25 – was declared to be Jesus's birthday. For more than a millennium, Church and state combined to keep mankind's understanding of the universe as the Greeks left it.
Nicolaus Copernicus changed all that. He presented his theory in 1532 to a select audience in the Vatican Gardens. His book, De Revolutionibus, had an earth revolving round the sun, but otherwise barely challenged Ptolemy's universe, and – despite popular myth – was not criticised by the Church. Not until Galileo was there real controversy. First, using the newly invented telescope, he found blemishes on the sun – its great orb, previously so perfect, was mottled by spots! – then he wrote a book pronouncing Copernicus's view not just theory but fact. His challenge to church orthodoxy won him house imprisonment for life, but while poets might talk of chariots in the sky, 17th-century scientists were framing things anew.
Next came Sir Isaac Newton, who made two key discoveries: the sun's mass relative to the earth's, and its density. Then, 20 years after coming up with the idea of gravity, he announced it to the world, showing that a body on the earth's surface is drawn downward by a force 350 times stronger than the tendency of the earth's rotation to fling it outward; and that this same power held the moon in orbit. Objects on earth and in the sky moved according to the same laws.
Was the sun's glory lessened by such discoveries? Not immediately. But a relegation, or a series of them, was on the way.
By 1780, in the hands of William Herschel, the reflecting telescope enabled solar science to emerge as an autonomous discipline. His discovery of Uranus and his mapping of 2,500 cloud-like structures he dubbed "nebulae" pointed to a universe far greater than imagined. By the end of the 18th century, astronomers saw that the sun was one star among many, and had estimated its distance, size, mass, rate of rotation and movements in space to within 10 per cent of today's values. The earth had been diminished by the discovery that it circled the sun; Herschel and his successors, in revealing the riches beyond our solar system, demoted the sun as well. Not only were we orbiting one minor star among the Milky Way's multitudes; the galaxy itself was but one of an untold number.
Despite this downgrading, in the 19th century hardly a year went by without something being added to our understanding of the sun, thanks to technological advances, the Industrial Revolution and a new enthusiasm for science. The list of discoveries runs close to 200: from the finding that stars display only a few combinations of spectra to the measurement of the sun's energy output – the "solar constant". As science extended the age of the earth, a new question arose: how old was the sun? And if it had burned for millions of years, how was its energy sustained?
The answer, that the sun was a colossal nuclear reactor, came as a result of Einstein's insights and the work of figures such as Hans Bethe, Niels Bohr and George Gamow. By the Second World War, both Allied and Axis scientists were keenly aware that nuclear fission might be used in a weapon, and the physicists who had examined the atom and the reasons for the sun's energy were deployed to create a nuclear bomb. When in 1952 "a blinding flash of light" on an island in the South Pacific signalled the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb, for a split second an energy that had existed only at the centre of the sun was unleashed on earth: a new indignity – the sun's otherworldly energy was no longer unique. As Bohr exclaims to Werner Heisenberg in Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen: "You see what we did? We put man back at the centre of the universe."
But that universe still had to be explored, and that included learning more about sun. By 1953, 14 of the 50 observatories in the world conducting solar visual studies were equipped with coronagraphs (special telescopes that, by blocking out certain wavelengths, enable scientists to see the sun more clearly); between 1945 and 1951, 70 per cent of publications in the new discipline of radio astronomy were devoted to solar studies. Then came the rockets: stung into action by Sputnik's launch in October 1957, the United States formed Nasa and sent Explorer 1 into orbit the following January. Today, more spacecraft than ever are studying the sun, and in around 2015 Nasa will launch Solar Probe Plus, which will pass within 5.9 million km (3.67 million miles) of the sun, closer than any previous working rocket.
Yet despite all this, questions remain. How does the sun generate its magnetic field? Why, since it is not on fire, do flames burst from it? What creates the corona, and how is it heated to such enormous temperatures? What switches the solar magnetic poles? Where is the solar wind produced, and how far does it blow? Why do sunspots exist? Solar physicists are forecasting a new golden age for learning about the sun - so watch this space.
'Chasing the Sun' by Richard Cohen is published by Simon & Schuster on November 1. The author will be giving an illustrated talk on the sun at Waterstones Piccadilly, London, on November 1 at 7pm.
Now for some sales pitch:
“A remarkably comprehensive and engrossing synthesis of the sun’s influence on science, art, religion, literature, mythology and politics… Apollo, Ra, Inti or Huitzilopochtli—all would rock with delight at Cohen’s sweeping endeavor.”
–Kirkus Reviews (éstarred review)
CHASING THE SUN THE EPIC STORY of the STAR THAT GIVES US LIFE
By Richard Cohen
Simon and Schuster Hardcover / On Sale Date: November 1, 2010
“Chasing the Sun is both a grand history of civilization and an irresistible account of an around-the-world odyssey in search of an elusive moving target. Richard Cohen collects fascinating stories with the exuberance and erudition of a Victorian explorer filling a curio cabinet with rare specimens. An amazing tour de force.”
--Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind
"[A] quite extraordinary book, which I absolutely loved. …It’s a dazzling solar encyclopedia; but also a fabulously provoking history of discoveries, dreams and delusions. I shall bask in its shimmering digressions, crazy cross-references, and dizzy overviews for many moons."
--Richard Holmes, author of The Age of Wonder
"On every single page there is something utterly fascinating. A vast and all-encompassing delight.”
--Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials
Over the course of eight years, scholar-adventurer Richard Cohen (By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions, 2002), literally and fervently chased the Sun. Having recognized that the modern world’s relationship with its nearest star had selfishly shifted, once again, back to thinking of the Earth as all-important, he took off, traveling the seven continents in order fully to understand and appreciate how every culture remains at the total mercy of the Sun’s control—no matter how much humanity might try to harness its power or even pretend to ignore it. In CHASING THE SUN, Cohen takes readers on a remarkable journey – from witnessing the Sun rise atop Mount Fuji on Midsummer Day to experiencing a solar eclipse in Antarctica – as well as a chronological voyage through history: from the Ancient Egyptians who revered the Sun as a god (three gods, in fact) to the current controversy about global warming. Through engaging anecdotes and interviews, he interprets what the Sun has meant throughout the ages in a quest that ends by being surprisingly moving.
What is extraordinary is how extensive Cohen’s survey becomes; enveloping his personal quest in a story that is sure to interest students of any field. Taking in mythology, physics, biology, geology, botany, astronomy, religion, politics, literature, and virtually all the arts, Cohen reveals that the Sun’s influence can be seen everywhere.
From the Daily Telegraph, 23 October 2010:
Lewis Jones is fascinated by a dizzying history of our solar system's star, Chasing the Sun by Richard Cohen
The sun is a big subject, and Richard Cohen, who is a former publisher and the author of a history of swordfighting, has written a big book about it, an encyclopedic plum pudding of a compendium.
He begins by climbing Mount Fuji to watch a sunrise, and ends by watching a sunset from a boat on the Ganges at Varanasi – and in the meantime visits 16 other countries, reads hundreds of books and considers our star from every conceivable perspective, and some that are barely conceivable.
He looks at the science, with its dizzying figures: “The sun is 32,000 light years from the centre of its galaxy of a hundred billion stars, which it orbits at about 155 miles a second, taking about 200 million years to complete a revolution.” There are at least a hundred billion galaxies, each harbouring a similarly huge number of stars.
He looks into the history of the science, from the Sumerians, the Babylonians and the Greeks, who produced 121 astronomers of note. Of these, Heraclitus (c 535-475BC) thought the sun was about the size of a shield, and that a new one rises every day, while Aristarchus of Samos (310-230BC) beat Copernicus by declaring that the Earth must orbit the Sun; and on to Galileo, Newton and Einstein.
Many 19th-century scientists thought the Earth was at most 100,000 years old, but more than a millennium previously Hindus reckoned its age at about 4.3 billion years (the current estimate is 4.6 billion). And apparently the massive lingams of Hindu temple domes are “purposely imitated in the design of nuclear-reactor cones, the latest tribute to the sun’s potency”.
Cohen covers the evidence for and against man-made global warming, and concludes that it is almost impossible to forecast if the poles will melt or if we will be entombed in a new ice age. It is no accident that until the 16th century “weather” and “whether” were interchangeable spellings; as Leopold Bloom puts it in Ulysses, weather is “as uncertain as a child’s bottom”.
He also explains eclipses, solstices and sunspots, and notes that the French, American and both Russian revolutions coincided with solar eruptions; the next peak of solar storms is due any time now. He traces the histories of navigation and cartography, of calendars and of timekeeping, from clocks of sand, water and incense (by which one smells the hour) to caesium clocks, accurate to one second in 1.4 million years. And he tells us that, instead of a watch, George Washington used a pocket sundial, a present from Lafayette.
He surveys solar mythology and though he does not go so far as the 19th-century scholar Friedrich Max Müller, who argued that the sun is the source of all myths, he still finds it ubiquitous, from ancient Egypt to the modern Vatican, where Pope Benedict XVI has called the sun “the image of Christ”.
He looks at the sun’s depiction in art, from Michelangelo to Hockney; in music, from Mozart to the Beatles; and in literature, from Homer to Nabokov, with an illuminating analysis of solar imagery in Lolita.
There is an excellent chapter on sunbathing, which was banned at Bournemouth until the early Thirties, the permatans of Edward VIII and President Kennedy, and how light-skinned people want darker skins and vice versa.
And besides these and other aspects of his subject, Cohen explores many “odd and uncategorisable areas”, from the origins of the British tax year, which begins on April 5 because bankers refused to pay their taxes for 11 days when we switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, to the fact that astronauts in space grow taller by up to three inches as their vertebrae relax in zero gravity.
He provides fascinating incidental biographies, such as that of the polymath Joseph Needham (1900-95), a Cambridge don who mastered physics, biology, chemistry, medicine and geology, spoke eight languages, was a prolific poet, a fervent Christian and Communist, and a keen morris dancer and nudist.
And in innumerable footnotes, some of them as long as this review, he explores such strictly irrelevant mysteries as the proboscis of Tycho Brahe, the great Danish astronomer who as a student lost most of his nose in a drunken swordfight in the dark, and thereafter sported two prosthetic ones: a copper one for everyday, and a gold and silver one for special occasions. (Cohen is also a former British sabre champion and Olympic competitor.)
Beautifully illustrated and competitively priced, Chasing the Sun is not a book to be read at a sitting, but I found it endlessly informative and diverting over a fortnight’s holiday in the rain.
Chasing the Sun: the Epic Story of the Star that Gives Us Life Chasing the Sun
by Richard Cohen
681pp, Simon & Schuster, £30 T £26 (PLUS £1.25 p&p) 0844 871 1515