THE SUN’S HEARTBEAT
And Other Stories from the Life of the Star That Powers Our Planet
By Bob Berman
Little, Brown. 290 pp. $25.99
How often do you really think about the sun? During the sweltering days of summer, I ponder the sun only when I’m irked because the wretched thing is roasting us like marshmallows. Into this sweaty season lands “The Sun’s Heartbeat,” a deeply enjoyable book by astronomy writer Bob Berman that sheds light (ahem) on “the sole source of our life and energy.”
Berman (no relation) begins his narrative with the sun’s birth and ends, billions of years hence, with its eventual fate as a cold, dark globe “smoother than a billiard ball.” In between, he explores the star’s history, its impact on our daily lives and how we have viewed it through the years. He comes across as the world’s most enthusiastic science teacher, writing with infectious energy about how humans went from the geocentric days of Aristotle to the current heliocentric understanding, and along the way he documents the missteps and odd ideas that sprang up. The most entertaining theory was suggested in 1798 by an accountant who said that the sun was made of ice — in part because when you climb a mountain, it gets colder rather than warmer, and everybody knows it’s supposed to get warm when you get closer to something warm.
The sun brings death as well as life, and Berman doesn’t shy away from this symmetry. In exploring the “biological mechanism by which the Sun commits murder,” he discusses skin cancer as well as methods of prevention. But it isn’t as simple as just staying out of the sun, because our skin needs those ultraviolet rays to produce cancer-preventing vitamin D. (Humanity has never spent as much time hiding from the sun as we have over the last few decades, thanks to air conditioning, the proliferation of cars and fear of skin cancer.)
Berman writes that “everything about the sun is either amazing or useful.” It’s hard not to enjoy a book when someone says that and does their cheerful best to back it up.