Book review: The sun, our star, sustains us

This witty, well-written and carefully researched book chronicles the science of the sun and the cou

This witty, well-written and carefully researched book chronicles the science of the sun and the countless ways in which it shapes life on Earth.

“The Sun’s Heartbeat” is the sixth book by Bob Berman, an astronomer who lives in the Catskills. He is director of the Overlook Observatory, near Woodstock, and the Storm King Observatory, in the Hudson highlands. He is also a columnist for Astronomy magazine, a host on WAMC radio, and the astronomy editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Amazing facts

He quickly and confidently gets the reader’s attention with a string of amazing facts and concepts about the sun and its power over Earth, people and the solar system. Each of the 18 topical chapters fully develops these.

This format and Berman’s clear, organized writing enables readers to enjoy a few chapters at a time, set the book aside and then return, without having to re-read to get caught up.

An appendix summarizes key facts about the sun, with notes to each chapter. Footnotes are not numbered, so you will want to check the notes section for each chapter before you start reading the next.

‘The Sun’s Heartbeat: And Other Stories from the Life of the State That Powers Our Planet’

Author: Bob Berman

Published by: Little Brown and Company, 309 pages

How much: $25.99

Like Mr. Wizard, the 1950s and ’60s television scientist, Berman clearly and simply explains how the sun works and how it influences people, planets and the universe. For example, the power of the energy released in the sun’s continuous nuclear fusion is the equivalent of “91 billion standard one-megaton H-bombs going off in the time it takes to say ‘holy moly.’ ”

But Berman doesn’t only write about the sun. He discusses solar eclipses, the connection between sunspots and climate change, and how solar radiation affects space exploration and even astrology. Sunlight can cause skin cancer, but he explains safe ways to sunbathe, to stimulate vitamin D production and to benefit from the power of vitamin D to stop or suppress cancers.

Vivid imagery

Like contemporary television scientist Bill Nye, Berman uses vivid imagery and wit to reinforce facts and concepts. He decribes the winter aurora borealis, for example, sometimes visible in the Capital Region, this way: “half the sky, and sometimes the entire heavens, explode with squirming, twisting ribbons of greens and reds, like modern art gone mad.”

Berman uses humor as punctuation. Frequently, after a quip, I could hear in my head, that ta-dum drum beat that used to follow jokes on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

One of my favorite lines is at the end of a discussion about the links between sunspots and crop harvests. Berman is not convinced such a link exists, explains why and then concludes by saying, “I’ve never seen BLT’s get cheaper” during periods with sunspots.

But he goes beyond clear writing and wit. He realizes that science is more than facts and concepts, it is a human enterprise. He tells readers about those who have advanced our knowledge of the sun, ranging from scientific celebrities like Kepler to the less known Walter Maunder.

On the radio

Berman appears every second Friday of the month on Vox Pop, WAMC radio’s call-in program, which that airs from 2 to 3 p.m.

He is scheduled to appear on Friday and can be heard on 90.3 FM, 1400 AM or via the website

Categories: Life and Arts

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