In the grand tradition of the scholar-adventurer, acclaimed author Richard Cohen takes us around the world to illuminate our relationship with the star that gives us life. Whether floating in a skiff on the Ganges as the Sun descends behind the funeral pyres of Varanasi, interviewing psychologists in the Norwegian Arctic about the effects of darkness, or watching tomato seedlings in southern Spain being hair-brushed (the better to catch the Sun’s rays), Cohen tirelessly pursues his quarry.
Drawing on more than seven years of research, he reports from locations in eighteen different countries, including the Novolazarevskaya science station in Antarctica (the coldest place on Earth); the Arizona desert (the sunniest); the Pope’s observatory-cum-fortress outside Rome (possible the least accessible); and the crest of Mount Fuji, where—entirely alone—he welcomes the sunrise on the longest day of the year.
As he soon discovers, the Sun is present everywhere—in mythology, language, religion, sciences, art, literature, and medicine; in the ocean depths; even atop the Statue of Liberty. Ancient worshippers believed our star was a man with three eyes and four arms, abandoned by his spouse because his brightness made her weary. The early Christians appropriated the halo from sun imagery and saw the cross as an emblem of the Sun and its rays. Galileo was the first to espy blemishes on the solar surface—sunspots—but hid his discoveries for fear of persecution. Einstein helped duplicate the source of the Sun’s power to create the atomic bomb; while the “Sun King” Louis XIV, Chairman Mao, Adolf Hitler, and the Japanese emperors all co-opted the Sun to enlarge their authority. Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes declare that even thinking about the solar system took up too much space in his brain, while Richard Wagner had Tristan inveigh against daylight as the enemy of romantic love.
Packed with interesting figures (the Sun is responsible for 44 percent of the world’s tidal energy, and when aligned with the Moon, as at high tide, makes us all minutely taller); extraordinary myths (in India, just a few years ago, pregnant women were still being kept indoors during an eclipse, for fear their babies would be born blind or with cleft palates); and surprising anecdotes (during the Vietnam War, a large number of mines dropped into Haiphong harbor blew up simultaneously in response to a large solar flare), this splendidly illustrated volume is erudite, informative, and supremely entertaining. It not only explains the star that so inspires us, but shows how complex our relations with it have been—and continue to be.