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Members' Book Review - Eating the Sun

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Eating the Sun, How Plants Power the Planet by Oliver Morton

Published by Fourth Estate, 2007

Reviewed by Cultivate Member, Angela Hummerston

Eating the Sun is a study of the wonders of photosynthesis.  Green plants contain chloroplasts that are instrumental in building organic substances from inorganic compounds using light as the source of energy.  In turn these plants feed animals and humans.  During photosynthesis oxygen is released which is converted back to carbon dioxide and water day and night by humans, animals, bacteria and fungi, which liberate the energy plants have stored away. 

In the past, the two processes have been in balance, i.e. close to cancelling out each other, but today the balance is not being maintained.

 Eating the Sun is divided into 3 parts:
 

  • The Span of a Man’s Life – how 20th century scientists replaced Enlightenment view of photosynthesis with something richer and deeper.
  • In the Span of a Plant’s Life – how the molecules discovered in Part 1 came to dominate the earth’s chemistry reshaped the atmosphere and changed the climate and habitability.
  • The Scale of a Tree’s Life – the story of what our use of fossil fuels is doing to the carbon cycle and thus to the climate.

Eating the Sun marries scientific achievement with the people instrumental in making the discoveries in order to foster our understanding of this complex subject.  This book brings the scientists alive as people; it records their lives, loves, disappointments, successes, achievements, honours and deaths.  Whilst these people were brilliant, they were also human, and it is this aspect that we get to explore as well as their achievements.

Photosynthesis transcends the boundaries of any single scientific discipline, consequently this book draws from the discoveries involving chemistry, geochemistry, geology, biology, biochemistry, microbiology and exobiology explaining how each discovery has impacted the discipline and thus led to further research.

The scientific aspects of photosynthesis are explained clearly and carefully and each chapter or section may be read in isolation. The personalities appear in successive chapters and a seamless story gradually unfolds.  Each chapter has its own further reading section to enable the reader to explore in greater depth any aspects of the subject.

The book claims “a celebration of the power of human intelligence and scientific culture it has created.  An everyday miracle needing nothing but sunlight, air and leaves, and eyes taught to make sense of them.”  Eating the Sun will help the reader to do just that, to make sense of this everyday miracle that is all around us – photosynthesis.

 

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