Ever dream of taking a trip to an exotic location to observe an eclipse or the northern lights? If so you might have had science writer Bob Berman as a guide. He has served as a lecturer on many such trips and his latest book, The Sun's Heartbeat, unpacks some of the astronomical facts behind those dazzling shows of light and shadow as well as the simple joys of warm sunlight on a sandy beach or an afternoon rainbow.
Science writers often have two options— straight facts presented clean and dry or trying to make the material as peppy as possible. Berman takes the latter route which, at times, does a disservice to his excellent content. He is telling the story of one of humanity's profoundest mysteries and guiding forces, the Sun. The story within the story is the Sun's heartbeat referenced in the title, the cycle of sunspots that determine much of the Sun's behavior. That cycle is linked to the Earth's climate changes or as Berman puts it when describing the vicious cold spell that hit the northern hemisphere's temperate zones in the late 1600s; "If the Sun goes on a tremendous bummer, how can we not follow its lead?"
Buried in the cutesy language however is a lot of scientific wisdom. Berman traces the study of sunspots through the ages, leading to the eventual discovery in the 1980s that sunspots are dark pockets of strong magnetism. In fact all the Sun's visible phenomena come from magnetic variations, and those variations can have a profound effect on our planet.
Berman is at his best when he's able to leave history behind and deal with modern perceptions of the Sun. His long history in writing magazine articles makes him a master at condensing complex stories into short, informative paragraphs and his side gig as a tour guide for groups observing astronomical phenomena also serves him in good stead. But like the entertaining but garrulous uncle at a family reunion, he has a tendency to be a little too in love with the yarns he's spinning and sometimes has a little trouble letting the star of the show, the Sun, shine.
Of course one can't take on the subject of the Sun without discussing global warming. The burning of fossil fuels has run counterpoint to the Sun's current cycle but the Sun's heartbeat is not constant and when the furnace fires up again we will be powerless to readjust. The other factor in the Sun's onslaught is the so-called space weather— the onslaught of particles beamed in our direction which can cause electrical surges, electronic outages and other disturbances that show that despite our technological advances we are still powerless in the face of the object that both keeps us safe and has the power to destroy us. Solar storms can render modern communication systems useless and ratchet up billions of dollars in damages. It is all part of the Sun's lifecycle which ends predictably, billions of years from now, with a long slow goodbye and fade to black.
In our modern existence we tend to ignore the dominant fixture in our lives, we block it out with shades and sunglasses, we mitigate its effect with air conditioning, fans and icy drinks, but we remain children of the Sun, as bound to it as the ancients who worshipped it by many names millennia ago. Still, Berman's rhapsodic description of a total solar eclipse makes the reader want to plan one amazing party when the next one is over the United States in 2017.
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