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The Sun’s Heartbeat

Within our own lives, one of the most powerful forces is that of the Sun. Directly or indirectly, it provides all of the energy we use on a daily basis. Yet this mass of incandescent plasma is often a mere afterthought. But not to be forgotten, writer for Astronomy magazine, Bob Berman makes the Sun the focus of a new book, The Sun’s Heartheat which explores how our parent star affects our lives in ways more direct than we might expect. The book is due to be released July 13th, but I got a review copy to tell everyone about.

The book is a short read clocking in at a quick 20 chapters. Roughly the first third of them is a brief history of solar astronomy. Most of this is concentrated on the history of observations of sunspots. It goes through the initial discoveries, the waxing and waning of popularity of sunspots thanks to the Maunder minimum, and Schwabe’s discovery of the cycles.

Once that’s ironed out, we get to what I consider to be the main theme of the book: How does the Sun affect us here on Earth? The first topics addressed are rather germane: The sun brings life, but too much of it can kill you. But after that, the topics are a bit more interesting. There’s a fantastic chapter on the importance of getting adequate supplies of vitamin D which your body produces naturally from exposure to the Sun. Another chapter deals with the way the Sun doesn’t affect us: Astrologically. The book discusses our ability to see colors and the impressiveness of total solar eclipses and auroras.

The second to last chapter covers just how much peril we face from a large coronal mass ejection. I was familiar with nearly everything in the book, including this chapter, but I think this chapter was my favorite. Sadly, most people are disinterested in science, but more than any other, this one was tangible enough to be rather alarming.

It closes with a preview of the future Sun, describing how its slow increase in brightness will make life on Earth unfavorable in a billion years or so and how it will eventually expand into a red giant.

If you’re an experienced astronomy enthusiast, this book will likely offer little new information on the Sun itself, although it does have lots of good backstories on some of the discoveries and those involved. It is engaging thanks to a friendly tone, even if Berman does have an odd fascination with anachronisms (17th century HMO’s?). The book lacked several of the deeper topics that I feel could have been more inviting for advanced readers such as a more thorough description of our knowledge of the innards of the Sun thanks to helioseismology. I suspect this is because it didn’t relate strongly enough to the main thesis aside from a general, how the Sun works which doesn’t focus on how it affects us.

But if you know a young astronomer, or someone older just getting into the field, or someone that’s stared only at deep sky objects and never thought much about the closest star to home, this book would likely be of some interest.

About 

Jon is a science educator currently living in Missouri. He is a high school teacher and does outreach with the St. Louis Astronomical society as well as presenting talks on science and related topics at regional conventions. He graduated from the University of Kansas with his BS in Astronomy in 2008 and has maintained the Angry Astronomer blog since 2006.
For more of his work, you can find his website here.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE July 6, 2011, 1:41 AM

    At the first paragraph, fifth line: “… our parent star effects our lives…”; that should be the verb affects, not the noun “effects”.

    At the third paragraph, second line: “… does the Sun effect us here on Earth?”; that also should be the verb affect, not the noun “effect”.

    Also in the third paragraph, in the sixth line: “… deals with the way the Sun doesn’t effect us: Astrologically.”; ditto, affect, not “effect”.

    Finally, at the sixth paragraph, last line: “…, how the Sun works which doesn’t focus on how it effects us.; ditto, affects, not “effects”.

  • Anonymous July 6, 2011, 3:19 PM

    Does he mention what color the Sun is?

    • Jon Voisey July 6, 2011, 4:18 PM

      Yes. There were two occasions where he discusses it if I remember correctly.

    • Torbjörn Larsson July 6, 2011, 4:59 PM

      This or this? The later link goes into eye/detector sensitivity issue I believe. (Another great UT tip!)

      • Anonymous July 6, 2011, 6:42 PM

        [url=http://www.science20.com/solar_fun_of_the_heliochromologist/the_color_of_the_sun_revelation]Here[/url] is both a more logical and scientific approach, as well as a bit of a romp.
        The Sun is neither yellow nor a peacy pink star. There are many demonstrations to thes fact.

        • Torbjörn Larsson July 12, 2011, 10:48 PM

          Yes, and if you click through my link you will find that under “great article”. (I found that first, but backtracked to the UT article later. No need to be unfaithful. =D)

  • Torbjörn Larsson July 6, 2011, 4:50 PM

    This was my immediate reaction:

    its slow increase in brightness will make life on Earth unfavorable in a billion years or so

    I have come to understand there may be a balance between star irradiation, which sets habitability, planet atmosphere, which is slowly ablated by among other things star irradiation, and planet climate, which is slowly changed by among other things star irradiation.

    If the stars increased radiation output wouldn’t cook the biosphere after some 5-10 Gy, it would at maintained radiation remove the atmosphere after some 10-20 Gy anyway IIRC papers I read after Gliese’s putatively habitable exoplanets were observed.

    Another reason to live around a (docile) M star, I’m sure.

    The second to last chapter covers just how much peril we face from a large coronal mass ejection.

    Apparently not worse than ~ 5 Gy of safety. So we will probably make it to the bitter end without facing up to CME biosphere peril.

    [That is for the 2012ers out there. Soon to be replaced by 2020ers or something…]

    But it wouldn’t be good for our electrified society, at a guess. Oh well, no electricity bill _that_ month then. :-)

  • Brian Johnson July 7, 2011, 4:42 AM

    “Directly or indirectly, [the sun] provides all of the energy we use on a daily basis.”

    Most, but definitely not all. I hate to be a stickler for accuracy, but I expect this sort of attention to detail on a science blog. Nuclear fission power doesn’t come from the sun; the Earth’s uranium was produced in an ancient supernova explosion. Since the interior heat of the Earth comes from the decay of heavy elements, the same is true of geothermal power.

    If we ever develop nuclear /fusion/ as an energy source, the power it provides will come from the Big Bang itself.

    • Torbjörn Larsson July 12, 2011, 10:52 PM

      Great, but I will stickle back. Hydrogen is a product of inflation reheating, not of the later big bang expansion.

  • Anonymous July 12, 2011, 2:10 PM

    As the author of this book, I don’t normally comment on reviews. But while I truly appreciate Jon’s kinder words, I take strong exception to his main conclusion that The Sun’s Heartbeat “will likely offer little new information.” I urge potential readers at any book store to open it at random. Each page offers 6-10 facts that other reviewers have characterized as “amazing” or “astonishing.” As a former college physics professor and longtime national astronomy columnist, I myself did not previously know much of the information in this book – and one solar researcher told me that even he learned many new things. If this reviewer truly was already familiar with the accomplishments of Galen, Weart, Viereck, Peiresc, and dozens of others, he’s certainly more knowledgeable than me. But I will wager that few if any serious amateur astronomers would know more than 15% of the stories and facts in The Sun’s Heartbeat. Indeed, we were concerned that we were packing too much information into each page, aimed as it is at the intelligent layman. I urge readers to please judge for yourself. – Bob Berman, Contributing Editor, Astronomy Magazine

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