On Science

Tales of sun and Pluto run hot and cold

Richard Cohen traveled to 18 countries and took eight years to write “Chasing the Sun,’’ which sprints through topics. Richard Cohen traveled to 18 countries and took eight years to write “Chasing the Sun,’’ which sprints through topics. (Stanford-Lockheed Institute for Space Research/ NASA)
By Anthony Doerr
Globe Correspondent / November 28, 2010

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In 1951, six sixth-graders asked Albert Einstein to solve a class dispute about “whether there would be living things on earth if the sun burnt out.”

“Dear Children,’’ Einstein replied, “. . . Without sunlight there is: no wheat, no bread, no grass, no cattle, no meat, no milk, and everything would be frozen. No LIFE.’’

The sun is everything to us: our lifeline, our energy source, our tether to the Milky Way. It “so obviously embraces us . . .,’’ argues Richard Cohen in a prodigious new book, “Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star that Gives Us Life,’’ “that we must accept that our presiding star remains by far the major influence on our lives, and on our climate.’’

Clearly the sun has been a major influence on Cohen. “Chasing the Sun’’ brought him to 18 countries and took him eight years to write. Reading it, one gets the sense that Cohen has squashed every ounce of his considerable literary, historical, and scientific learning into its 574 pages.

The book opens with a first-person account of climbing Mount Fuji on the summer solstice, slides into descriptions of sun celebrations across world cultures, and is soon offering thumbnails of solar-oriented monuments like Stonehenge. Cohen quotes Sophocles on astronomy (“Impossible to understand and madness to investigate’’), Virginia Woolf on eclipses (“I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out of some vast obeisance” ), and C.S. Lewis on the explosion of the sun (“It was three times — twenty times — as big as it ought to be, and very dark red’’).

As one might expect, “Chasing the Sun’’ dips into subjects familiar to any general-interest survey of our star — telescopes, photosynthesis, sunspots, ocean currents. But it also strolls through scores of topics much less expected: shadows, gold, vampires, the Nazi appropriation of sun imagery, and the sounds made by auroras crackling and whistling over the poles.

Unfortunately, as a result, “Chasing the Sun’’ begins to feel as massive as its subject: One can almost imagine smaller books about planets orbiting distantly around it.

Cohen’s sprint through photosynthesis, for example, hardly illuminates the exquisite symphony of biochemistry going on in the leaves around us. Ten pages in, he’s flashing past plants on his way to marveling at how certain insects use polarized light as an optical compass. Fifteen pages after a chapter on the history of solar power, he presents a chapter on the centrality of the sun in the history of Western painting.

Likewise, while Cohen’s descriptions of conditions on the sun are unfailingly riveting — “its whole surface surges up and down about two and half miles every 160 minutes,’’ he writes, “although even to talk about the Sun’s ‘surface’ is misleading since, being largely a collection of gases, it has none’’ — the sporadic nature of these moments means the book lacks the succinct poetry of, say, Dava Sobel’s chapter on the sun in “The Planets.’’

The American writer Eleanor Clark, upon moving to Rome in the late 1940s, found herself swamped by the city’s “mess and the blazing sun, the incongruities, the too-muchness of everything.’’ That’s a pretty fair analogy for how one feels reading “Chasing the Sun’’: It’s fascinating, but the “too-muchness’’ of the experience gradually overwhelms. One feels as if Cohen’s ravenous curiosity is pulsing, flaring, and buffeting you with its solar winds; his subjects are too multiple, and one begins to pine for something more contained.

Smaller, then, we shall get. Consider for a moment the infinitely colder and more distant object we call Pluto. In “Pluto: Sentinel of the Outer Solar System,’’ Barrie W. Jones, an astronomy professor at the Open University in London, writes a programmatic inquiry into what we currently know about, in his words, “such a tiddler among the planets.’’

“Pluto’’ is a rigidly organized book written in utilitarian prose. Each section is carefully numbered and self-consciously introduced. At the end of Chapter 1, for example, Barrie actually takes the time to type, “That concludes Chapter 1 . . . much of what you have learned will support and enhance your understanding of subsequent chapters.’’ In short, Pluto lacks the playfulness and jam-packed lyricism of Cohen’s “Chasing the Sun.’’

But it is worthwhile on several points. It offers a readable history of the discovery of Pluto and a good primer on the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt, that distant swarm of ice and rocks at the very edge of our solar system.

Jones’s book also includes a short but fascinating chapter about Pluto’s demotion to a “dwarf planet’’ in 2006. What is classification, Jones wonders, and how do we structure and systematize knowledge? “[T]here are always hard cases at the boundaries,’’ writes Jones, and clearly Pluto, which is only one of many large, nearly spherical objects in the Kuiper belt, presents a hard case.

Both Cohen and Jones are careful to remind their readers of the hazards of writing books about subjects for which many unanswered questions may soon be resolved. Cohen interviews scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who hope to launch a probe in 2015 that will pass within 4.3 million miles of the sun, basically as close as anything can get without incinerating. And in that same year, if all goes well, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration spacecraft called New Horizons will be scrutinizing Pluto and sending back information about the Kuiper belt.

In the meantime we can read, and stare up at the sky, and wonder.

Anthony Doerr is the author, most recently, of a collection of stories titled “Memory Wall.’’ He can be reached at

CHASING THE SUN: The Epic Story of the Star that Gives Us Life
By Richard Cohen
Random House, 575 pp., illustrated, $35

PLUTO: Sentinel of the Outer Solar System
By Barrie W. Jones
Cambridge University, 231 pp., illustrated, $35.99