Chasing the Sun

The Epic Story of the Star
That Gives Us Life

By Richard Cohen

Random House. 608 pp. $35.

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Reviewed by Richard Di Dio


Over many millennia, human beings have been warned not to look directly at the sun.

For ancient civilizations, the reason was mythological: We are simply unworthy of gazing at the visage of the Sun-God. Now, the reason is more scientific: UV rays can damage our eyes, as when we observe a solar eclipse.

We should all be glad that Richard Cohen, author of Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life, has not heeded these warnings. Instead, he has focused his gaze directly on the fiery disk, and now reports back with an unflinching, spellbinding account of what can only be described as "everything under the sun."

Kaleidoscopically covering billions of years of solar system history, Chasing the Sun is a paean to Sol's power as the energy source that sustains us physically and culturally. Deftly mixing anthropology, astronomy, solar physics, religion, architecture, photography, literature, and music, Cohen's work is prodigious, audacious, and dazzlingly illuminating.

A nonlinear scientific and cultural saga, the book is thematically structured, with each section profiling the sun as a different character in the human drama. Thus, "The Sun Before Science" describes the development of solar mythology from Babylonian times, the creation of Stonehenge, Angkor Wat, and thousands of other structures as primitive observatories, and the portentous appearance of eclipses. "Discovering the Sun" emphasizes the beginnings of science and mathematics via astronomical observation and prediction. Here, the exact nature of the orb's status in the heavens is debated vigorously in the opposing cosmologies of Ptolemy and Copernicus, with inevitable ramifications for the Catholic Church and Galileo.

The sun's effect on Earth is cataloged by topics as diverse as the use of reflected light in warfare, why cheap seats at baseball games are called bleachers, and Coco Chanel's accidental suntan in the 1920s (which kick-started today's version of sun-worship at the tanning-booth altar).

Cohen even sinks to unbelievable depths - literally "where the sun don't shine" - to describe life in the deepest trenches of the Earth's oceans. Even transparent creatures scuttling across the floor of silent seas owe their existence to the sun-driven photosynthesis occurring at the ocean surface.

Ample homage is paid to the sun's role as Earth's timekeeper, the ultimate delineator of the year, seasons, and hours. The timepieces that we build - gnomons, hourglasses, sundials, sun-boards, casement clocks - are but pale imitations of the star that defines our east and our west; even atomic clocks must be adjusted periodically, via leap-years and leap-seconds, in order to match the true year as dictated by the sun.

As fascinating as this solar compendium may be, it is eclipsed by Cohen's impressive study of the cultural influence of the sun. His detailed taxonomy of solar-inspired works of literature, poetry, art, and music, from cave painters to the Beatles, demonstrates how artists use the sun as a "direct subject of their creations, sometimes a symbol of what they have wanted to convey, infusing their work with an authority, even majesty." (A darker, more chilling use of this imagery also exists: consider the swastika and the Rising Sun.)

Inexorably, speculation on our future must consider the possible effects of solar activity on climate. As a self-confessed solatic - no lunacy for him! - Cohen is partial to the view that global warming may be due more to the sun than to man, and thus his presentation does not note significant data that suggest otherwise. However, he is refreshingly honest about his lack of credentials in this area, and includes enough research to suggest that a burgeoning golden age in solar science may soon produce results leading to consensus.

Cohen is on a quest to ensure that the sun gets its just due, because "our relationship with the Sun has gone astray. Having cracked the code of our star's great power, the miracle of nuclear fusion, we have discovered new wonders about the Sun; but something of value has been lost in the process."

Highlighting Cohen's epiphanies as he travels the globe in search of ancient and ongoing solar tributes, Chasing the Sun can be read as Cohen's personal attempt to restore for himself these "primitive magical qualities" that have been lost. As he describes a tortuous climb of Mount Fuji to witness the summer solstice sunrise, Cohen takes us along on this spiritual journey.

Along with him, readers will wonder how "anyone could doubt the Sun's continuing power over us, in some vestigial sense still the prime organizing principle of our lives."

Richard Di Dio teaches physics at La Salle University. Contact him at radidio@gmail.com.