Twinkle, Twinkle, Giant Star

Daylight-saving time ends this weekend. The clocks change. Is that the best the modern world can do for a sun-worshiping ritual?

About 10 years ago, Richard Cohen was running a British publishing house and trying to find someone to write a book he wanted to read, one about the sun. He found no takers and so he took the job himself. After eight years and reporting trips to 18 countries on six continents—his wife would tell inquirers, “Oh, he’s out chasing the sun”—he had a 574-page book with a point. The modern world has decentralized the sun, Mr. Cohen says in “Chasing the Sun”; science has reduced this glorious miracle of a star to little more than a dependable overhead light. “The wonder has been stripped away,” he writes.

At least that’s what Mr. Cohen says his point is. I’m not sure that the book backs him up. I suspect that he was just interested in the sun and one thing led to another, the way Richard Burton in the 17th century set out to describe depression and ended up writing “The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is, With all the kinds, causes, symptomes, prognostickes, and severall cures of it. In three Partitions with their severall Sections, members, and subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, opened and cut up.”

And so in this discursive and readable firework of a book, we learn—and are interested to do so—that the sun was studied by primitive cultures because it allowed them to time their crops; by the ancient Chinese because it gave astrologers political power with their rulers; by early Islamic worshipers because it set the direction and hour of their prayers.

We also learn how Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton and Herschel by turns built the evidence-based picture of an orderly universe with the Earth not at the center—the closest Mr. Cohen comes to explaining how science decentralized the sun. We hear about the awe that solar eclipses have always inspired, and how an eclipse in 1919 led to the acceptance of Einstein’s theory that gravity bends the light from stars visible near and eclipsed sun. We find out how the atom was discovered and then split, and how a bomb was built based on atomic fusion, which is the process that powers the sun.

But Mr. Cohen—oddly enough, in a book protesting the sun’s decentralization—says little about the sun itself: How it drew itself together from the detritus of four previous generations of stars, how it’s layered like an onion and melds gas and light, how its heat struggles from the fusing core to reach us. Mr. Cohen confesses: “The main memory I have of any scientific endeavor” in high school was of a teacher climbing through a window and frying an egg on a copper pan with a Bunsen burner. “Some readers may wish that I had ventured deeper into solar astronomy,” he says, “but this book is not a rainbow; it has to end somewhere.”

“Chasing the Sun” is less about the sun, then, than about the sun’s effect on the Earth and us earthlings. The sun’s ultraviolet light gives us fashionable tans and skin cancer; it cures seasonal affective disorder and thins the ozone layer. The sun sets our clocks and calendars and maps. Sunspots—formed by cyclical surges in the sun’s magnetic field—increase the Earth’s exposure to radiation, affecting everything from the weather to satellites to telephone service. The sun, Mr. Cohen notes, has been central to the myths of every culture, though it’s a mystery why Daedalus and his sun-struck son Icarus show up only in a footnote on page 487. Gold, mirrors and blondes all have been regarded as precious for centuries because they’re sun symbols.

Mask from the Museum of the Sun in Riga, Latvia.

The sun, of course, governs the great cycles in the air and in the oceans, and it might—or might not—even play a major role in global warming. Mr. Cohen is agnostic on the “climate change” front. “Whether we should prepare ourselves for global warming or for a new ice age indirectly caused by a hotter Earth or by some other factor is almost impossible to forecast,” he says, and then is unable to resist adding: “Until the sixteenth century, ‘weather’ and ‘whether’ were interchangeable spellings.” Then he notes: “Or, as Joyce’s Leopold Bloom so charmingly puts it, weather is ‘as uncertain as a child’s bottom.’ ”

“Chasing the Sun” is sprinkled throughout with such glittery delights. The haloes of Christian saints, he says, began as little suns. The 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe had two cousins who went to England in 1592 on a diplomatic mission that had nothing to do with the sun or astronomy but, we learn with pleasure as Shakespeare clearly did, that their names were Frederik Rosenkrantz and Knud Gyldenstierne.

The book ends with people who still honor the sun. Mr. Cohen, on one of his many trips, goes to India in 2006 to visit Udaipur, about 250 miles south of New Delhi, for the Hindu festival of light. He meets with a wealthy local leader, a maharana, who has 14 solar-powered vehicles for hire; who says his family—which he traces back to 569—is “descended from the Sun” (Mr. Cohen capitalizes the word throughout); and whose stationery, the author notes, is “embossed with a Sun sporting a mighty, whirly mustache.” The maharana tells him that the sun is a god, a part of us, divine, and it “doesn’t so much bring us light as take away the darkness.”

At Varanasi, an Indian holy city, the author watches a Hindu ceremony along the Ganges River, attended by more than a thousand in boats and on the shore, where priests rang bells, blew on conch shells and chanted for peace in the world—a ceremony held in the dying light of the setting sun. At that moment, Mr. Cohen says, he felt the ancient connection with this star that holds over us life and death. And so it does: Without the sun, we’re just cold, starving naked mole rats who won’t last a generation.

Even if he doesn’t work much at backing his theory about the sun’s “decentralized” place in our lives, Mr. Cohen is surely right. We modern Western folk—living with air conditioning and central heat, buying food at markets, our watches and cellphones telling us the time, GPS devices telling us where we are—hardly need to think of the sun at all. The blame lies clearly, obviously with technology, the march of progress, the temptations of convenience and human laziness.

The blame does not lie with science. For day-in, day-out sun worship, no one is more devoted than those scientists known as astronomers. One of them routinely posts online photos of the sun accompanied by long, clear and enchanted explanations that begin with introductions on the order of “Oh man oh man, do I love this picture.”

Another astronomer-blogger says of another photo of the sun: “I could not stop looking at it.” In the photos, a granular sun erupts, swirls, blazes, and you might want to look at them. Worship is catching.

Ms. Finkbeiner, who runs the graduate program in science writing at John Hopkins University, is a free-lance science writer.


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