From acclaimed science journalist Oliver Morton comes Eating the Sun, a fascinating, lively, profound look at photosynthesis, nature's greatest miracle. From the physics, chemistry, and cellular biology that make photosynthesis possible, to the quirky and competitive scientists who first discovered the beautifully honed mechanisms of photosynthesis, to the modern energy crisis we face today, Eating the Sun offers a complete biography of the earth through the lens of this common but crucial process.
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About the Author
Award-winning science journalist Oliver Morton is the author of Mapping Mars, a contributing editor at Wired, and a contributor for The New Yorker, Science, and The American Scholar. He lives with his wife in Greenwich, England.
Read an Excerpt
Eating the Sun
How Plants Power the Planet
Scripps, planets and proteins
The Scripps Institute of Oceanography must be, simply by grace of its setting, one of the nicest places in the world for a scientist to work. Just north of La Jolla Cove, just south of the cliffs of Torrey Pines, its buildings are worked into the slopes that lead down to the Pacific like foliage tucked into a tumbling rockery. In the soft climate of southern California the distinction between inside and outside is blurred. The buildings' corridors take every opportunity to open out into balconies; staircases wander from one building to a seemingly separate one below with no need to worry about exposure to the elements, stepping down the slope to the steady rhythm of the surf below.
Scripps owes much of its modern pre-eminence to Roger Revelle, once described by a colleague as 'a combination of charismatic visionary and con man'. A spectacularly entrepreneurial scientist, he used the funding boom which followed the Second World War to expand the laboratory's remit as far as he could, and the further post-Sputnik boom to establish the University of California's San Diego campus, which stands on the higher ground behind it. Revelle used to joke that the field of oceanography covered everything that anyone at Scripps wanted to study, and today Scripps boasts as eclectic a research agenda as you could hope to find, with scientists studying everything from the giant kelp in the cove offshore to air bubbles trapped in the Greenland icecap.
Among the things Revelle himself studied was the radioactive carbon-14 produced in nucleartests—studies dating from his time leading the science team studying the first tests on Bikini Atoll. In 1957, in the course of this work, he gave voice to one of the defining truths of our age. In the late nineteenth century the great chemist Svante Arrhenius had pointed out that carbon dioxide warmed the earth by trapping outgoing heat in the atmosphere—the greenhouse effect—and that humans were putting a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That addition, Arrhenius suggested, should warm the planet, something he saw as being basically a good idea. In the first half of the twentieth century, though, oceanographers had argued that the oceans would quickly soak up the carbon dioxide humanity added to the atmosphere, forestalling any such warming.
While thinking through his carbon-14 work, Revelle realized there was a basic chemical flaw in this argument which meant that the oceans could not absorb carbon dioxide anything like as quickly as humans could produce it. Carbon dioxide must have been accumulating in the air since the beginning of the industrial revolution. As a result, Revelle wrote, 'Human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.' That experiment is the climatic background against which the history of the twenty-first century will unfold.
Today, when details of new carbon-dioxide measurements and trends can make front-page news, it is hard to realize that when Revelle wrote his now-famous words there were no reliable measurements of the world's carbon-dioxide level, and few scientists had any interest in making any. Revelle made it his business to hire one of the only people attracted by the problem, a young geochemist from the California Institute of Technology (hereafter Caltech) in Pasadena. With Revelle's encouragement and support, Dave Keeling was able to put carbon-dioxide monitoring equipment in inaccessible places where the value might reflect the global average, rather than anything going on nearby; places like Antarctica and Mauna Loa, one of the Hawaiian volcanoes (which is not, at the moment, emitting gases itself). Within a few years, Keeling had shown all round the world levels of carbon dioxide were steadily rising year on year. He also showed that levels in the atmosphere tracked changes in the biosphere, the earth's active, living component. Carbon dioxide rose and fell as plants grew in the spring and leaves then rotted in the fall. Keeling's findings illustrated both the global impact of industrial carbon emission, and the global effects of photosynthesis.
Almost fifty years on, Keeling was still at Scripps when I visited a few years ago, and still measuring carbon-dioxide levels; he had devoted the bulk of his professional life to monitoring atmospheric carbon dioxide and trying to understand the ways in which it changes over time. A charming, courtly man, slightly hard of hearing, he had a large, airy office at the south end of the Scripps campus, lined with drawers full of data; younger colleagues working on similar issues had desks in the larger room outside his door.
Dave Keeling's story is the story of a planet; Andrew Benson's centres on a protein. Benson's office, a few hundred yards north of Keeling's, has a very different feel: a small room on the top floor of one of the Institute's bigger, blockier concrete buildings, cluttered with reminders of a scientific life devoted to a great many different subjects. Keeling chose a hedgehog career, centred on knowing one big thing. Benson has been more eclectic. He has worked on the biochemistry of ageing in salmon, and on the energy-rich waxes in the Lantern Fish and the Orange Roughy (don't eat them whole, he warns, or that wax will go through you like a dose of salts). He's studied specialized topics—the extraordinary concentration of arsenic in the kidneys of giant clams on the Great Barrier Reef—and universal ones, such as the composition of the membranes that define the surfaces of cells, a subject on which almost everyone in the field thinks he is wrong. The bare walls of his room—they have the grain of the wood that was used to form the concrete still preserved in their texture—are hung with art from the Pacific northwest and from Japan. Some of Benson's closest friends are Japanese, and their national aesthetic is one that pleases him. There is no contemplative calm, though, in the stacks of papers and other research materials that brim over on the shelves and fill the cabinets.Eating the Sun
How Plants Power the Planet. Copyright © by Oliver Morton. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Morton is a superbe science writer. He doesn't spare the reader on scientific detail, yet his explainations are lucid and he ties things together in an entertaining fashion. I already knew much of what he was talking about, but he gave me many new insights. His vignettes of the actors in this drama are both entertaining and informative. This book is not for the timid reader and he does go on a bit, but it's well worth a careful read.