David Sexton

From red giant to white dwarf

Richard Cohen, who was a publishing director of Hutchinson and Hodder before moving to New York where he now teaches Creative Writing, is the author of one previous book: By the Sword: Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers and Olympic Champions (2002).

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Chasing the Sun

Richard Cohen

Simon & Schuster, pp. 681, £

Richard Cohen, who was a publishing director of Hutchinson and Hodder before moving to New York where he now teaches Creative Writing, is the author of one previous book: By the Sword: Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers and Olympic Champions (2002). This comprehensive history drew on his deep, personal knowledge of the subject, for Cohen was five times the British national sabre champion, selected for the Olympic team every time between 1972 and 1984. Its illustrations include a superb shot of the author flying through the air sideways, executing a ‘horizontal fleche’ against Dom Philip Jebb at Downside Abbey.

Chasing the Sun is even more ambitious. Cohen says that when he was working in publishing he wanted to commission this book, simply because he realised that he knew so little about ‘what, above all other things, governs our lives’, but he could find no author willing to undertake such a wide-ranging account. No sane author, perhaps. So now he has done it himself.

The sun is not a subject easily focussed. Since there would be no life on this planet without it, all life whatsoever can be pretty directly related to it —or to its absence (Cohen includes a chapter on ‘The Dark Biosphere’, life in the lightless depths of the oceans, although even this turns out to be partially dependent on light-driven eco-systems on the surface).

‘One lesson I have learned in writing this book is that the Sun gets into everything’, says Cohen in his Preface. This is, therefore, a book about everything under the sun. But it is not a valueless ‘cultural history’ of the kind that academics now write about anything from oysters to obesity. Chasing the Sun is much more like a latterday Anatomy of Melancholy, taking in whatever catches Cohen’s attention, from allusions to sun and shade in Lolita to the agonies of porphyria, from Tintin using a solar eclipse to outwit his Inca captors to the invention of Ambre Solaire suncream in 1936, from sundials to blondes. It’s full of wacky facts, surprising etymologies and choice quotes. Here’s Galileo describing wine as ‘light held together by moisture’, and Newton observing: ‘Noe heat is so pleasant & beamish as the suns.’

Cohen has explored as much as he can for himself. He opens with an account of an arduous ascent of Mount Fuji to see the sunrise on 21 June, 2005, the summer solstice, and closes with sunset on the Ganges, at Varanasi. In between, he travels to the coldest place on earth, to join, he says, ‘the first human beings to witness a total solar eclipse from the Antarctic’; he goes to Almeria to see its greenhouses and solar energy installations; he fingers Galileo’s drawings of sunspots, in the library of the Vatican observatory at Castel Gandolfo. Nothing is too personal to mention, including, as an example of how solar interference can be used to rationalise bad decisions, the time, in the 1994 Commonwealth Fencing Championships in Canada, when, at 14-all, he scored a hit against his opponent but the referee said that, because of the sun, he hadn’t seen whether or not Cohen had parried the previous attack successfully.

Yet the book has structure too, progressing lucidly from ‘The Sun before Science’ (the Incas, Stonehenge), through ‘Discovering the Sun’ (science from the Sumerians to the atom bomb), ‘Harnessing the Sun’ (calendars, clocks, solar energy) and the Sun in Culture (flags, paintings, photo- graphy, music, literature, the Nazis) towards ‘The Death of the Sun’ at last, first as a red giant, ‘some 265 times as wide across as it is today, and 2,730 times as luminous’, then as a white dwarf,

a tiny shrunken cylinder probably smaller than Mars, but with a density of two tons or more per cubic centimetre, where a teaspoonful of matter would weigh as much as a Rolls-Royce.

The only contentious section is the chapter on global warming, in which, while not at all dismissing the idea that human activity can alter the climate, Cohen insists, in the spirit of the whole project, that it is the sun that matters most in climate change — taking as his guru on this question Piers Corbyn, the director of Weather Action. Cohen believes that when it comes to global warming,

the science is not at all settled ... the Sun so obviously embraces us, its atmosphere and wind surrounding us, its matter washing on our shores, that we must accept that our presiding star remains by far the major influence on our lives, and on our climate. Beyond that, we are all still searching.

If some sections are cursory even at this length — how could he only mention Philip Larkin’s ‘Solar’ in a footnote? — and Cohen himself sometimes throws up his hands — ‘I list, I do not explain’, he admits — nonetheless Chasing the Sun is not just grandly informative but peculiarly charming, a book nobody else would have had the chutzpah to write, this late in the day. In the Acknowledgements, he thanks his family, including his son Toby ‘who one day put his hand on my shoulder and asked, “Daddy, why don’t you make some money and write a nice short book?” ’

His next project, though, is a study of all the historians there have ever been.