Friday, February 05, 2010

The Sun Kings by Stuart Clark and an interview with the author

Review of the Sun Kings.

Think back to 2003. To be honest, all I remember of that year was the invasion of Iraq, the publication of one of my books, and my elder son departing for university. But in October, just as my son was settling into his new life, and the war in Iraq was rumbling on, something strange was happening in the skies. Look at the accounts of the year 2003 and it is little mentioned, but according to Stuart Clark's account in The Sun Kings this 'happening' was dramatic. The sun was pocked with spots, and above them came spurting fountains of light. The effect upon the earth several hours later was even more dramatic. Communication systems went down, areas of the earth were blacked out and the paths of aircraft diverted from anywhere near the poles for fear of subjecting the passengers and crew to dangerous doses of radiation. It seems a small consolation that the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis were spectacular.

However these effects pale in comparison to an earlier similar episode in the nineteenth century. Then, the aurora displays in the night had not only been magnificent, but had extended great distances from both poles, and when dawn had come it had been reddened with a strange sinister light. At the same time telegraph operators received shocks from surges, and the whole system was awash with an unknown power from outside.

Yet only two astronomers reported the large sun spots and flares that had initiated these displays, and only one of these, Richard Carrington, linked these signs of a magnetic storm to what had happened on the sun. And, as is often the way of things in science, his ideas were initially received with scepticism.

Like an opening scene in a thriller Stuart Clark then winds back to describe how this strange behaviour of the sun was investigated - before Carrington and then afterwards - gradually revealing why the sun behaves as it does, before going on to make a chilling prediction for the near future.

It turns out that the sun behaves cyclically - going through periods of activity as demonstrated by sun spots, before becoming quiet again. Just recently the sun has been relatively quiet, and a more active period is expected. If there are more sun spots and solar flares then we can expect disruption to our communication system - an unpleasant prospect given our dependency on it.

There is one other startling prospect too; and that is the world will become colder. According to some scientists the reason that the earth has been warming since the industrial revolution is not due to the build up of carbon dioxide but because the sun has been quiet. A quiet sun means fewer magnetic storms, and since magnetic storms are thought to cause clouds, the skies have recently been clearer. Clear skies allow more energy from the sun to reach the earth's surface and it becomes warmer. Hence a period of greater solar activity will cause the earth to cool.

It is a comforting thought - that it is not man's activity that has caused global warming but a natural consequence of the sun's cycle. However, even this turns out to be true I don't think it is a reason to become any less careful with how we use and abuse our planet. Either way we are on the cusp of running out of oil. It seems a woeful shame to use this precious resource just for fuel. We have to find better sources of energy, because judging from the conclusion of the Sun Kings we may soon be needing more of it to keep ourselves warm.

Just as Dava Sobel says 'The Sun Kings' is 'a captivating , fast-paced, beautifully crafted story.' - and, I would add, essential reading.

Photo: Simon Wallace

Stuart Clark is the senior editor for space science for the European Space Agency's web portal team. A former editor of Astronomy Now, and an award-winning author, his books include The Sun Kings, Galaxy, Deep Space and Big Questions: Universe.

Holding a first class honours degree and a PhD in astrophysics, his writing also appears in UK magazines and newspapers such as New Scientist and The Times. He is a regular voice on BBC radio and various podcasts discussing the latest astronomical results. He is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a Visiting Fellow of the University of Hertfordshire and a former vice-chair of the Association of British Science Writers.



Questions about The Sun Kings

CD: What initiated your interest in solar flares?
SC: The Sun has always fascinated me. At university I was told that Richard Carrington discovered solar flares in 1859 – without any details. I remember thinking at the time, 'what would it be like to see something that no one else had seen?' Later I saw a television programme that recreated a moment when some monks saw what was probably a meteorite hitting the Moon. Again, that same fascination of seeing something for the first time gripped me. Eventually, I began to seek out accounts of astronomers seeing things for the first time and the more I dug around Carrington's solar flare discovery, the more fascinated I became. The canvas of that apocalyptic event opened up, as did Carrington's tragic life, and the way this singular event changed astronomy. I knew I had to rescue this story from the dusty archives, diaries and letters in which I found it and bring it to a wider audience.

CD: The descriptions of the effects of the solar flare are quite frightening. Yet, I'd never heard of it before - except in the context of the 'cause' of the Northern Lights. Why do you think the effect of solar flares is not better known?
SC: It's a complete mystery to me. I could not believe what I was reading in my research - hundreds of eyewitness accounts that talked of burning purple arches in the sky, of the landscape painted in dancing figures of fire, and the oceans stained the colour of blood. This was epic stuff, not widely known today. I could not believe that I had stumbled across such a powerful, yet largely forgotten, story.

CD: Apart from the fascinating science I also found the lives of the scientists very interesting. Carrington is the main character in the book, but there are others that are equally interesting. Is there one you particularly admire?
SC: It's very difficult to choose; I loved them all. The more I read their letters and papers, the more I came to know them. These men and women of a century and a half ago became as real to me as friends. I liked and admired them all, even though it was clear that they all had their human weaknesses. If I have to single out anyone other than Carrington, then it has to be William Herschel. His discovery of the infrared radiation and his call to turn astronomy from simple mapping to explaining the celestial objects was truly ahead of its time. And he has an inspiring human story of rags to riches.

CD: Is Carrington's House still standing? Have you ever been there?
SC: Sadly no, it's gone now. And was long gone when I started my research. You can still find Carrington Close and Dome Road in Redhill to mark where it once stood. I did find a gentleman who had lived in the house though. He had developed a passionate interest in Carrington and had a large collection of papers and books that he very generously allowed me to use. He is called Norman Keer, and he even wrote a romanticised pamphlet about Carrington.

CD: Carrington seems to have been an unusual character, and the end of his life is tragic. In a way it could be said he was destroyed by love. What do you think he might have gone on to do?
SC: I think the key moment in Carrington's life was the death of his father. Before then, he was a contented bachelor, living off the income from his father's brewery and pursuing an extraordinary programme of astronomical observations. He had constructed a excellent star chart and was in the throes of cataloguing sunspots, these strange blemishes on the Sun that are the seats of the solar flares. When he had to run the brewery and keep up these day and night observations - as well as perform all the calculations by hand to turn the measurements into useable data - he was done for. He suffered a nervous breakdown, sold his observatory and then fell into the disastrous marriage that finished him off: unbelievably tragic.

CD: Did you make any interesting discoveries while researching the book?
SC: You bet! It seemed like I was making them on a daily basis. I would unearth something, or read a sentence, and another little piece of the puzzle would fall into place. Perhaps the biggest realisation was that the Carrington solar storm and the worldwide aurora that it precipitated was the tipping point for astronomy. No longer were astronomers concerned about mapping the stars to aid navigation, now they wanted to study the celestial objects to understand what they were, and how they could affect us on Earth. It was such a profound change, that it plunged British astronomy into a crisis, which was only resolved in the 1870s by the Devonshire commission mandating the Royal Greenwich Observatory to begin astrophysical observations.

CD: The Sun Kings has an unusual structure for a work of non-fiction in that it starts with the puzzle and then proceeds to explain this in a series of flashbacks. It works very well: what made you think of writing it like this?
SC: I was so captivated by this story that I wanted to tell it in the most dramatic way possible – whilst keeping everything factual. So I thought to myself, how would I write this if it were a novel. Storytelling has always been a fascination of mine; I love a compelling text that turns a story into an engine that demands to go forwards. I popped in the back story along the way, hopefully treating those episodes as narratives in their own right, and all the time I tried to make each individual chapter self-contained and satisfying, whilst at the same time building the narrative into a much bigger whole. I'm pretty pleased with it; I'd like to try the same thing again. I have another astronomy related story in mind, 18th century this time. Again it's not a widely known story. I also have a physics idea that could be treated the same way. I must get around to writing the proposals.

General Questions.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
SC: A memorable encounter with a snail? Let me think. No, I can't say I have. I always avoid stepping on them if I see them in my way.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
SC: I have absolutely no idea. I tend to recoil from pride because I always feel I could have done something better or I'm looking forward to the next challenge. Mind you, it was certainly an exhilarating moment when I heard that The Sun Kings had been shortlisted for the Royal Society book prizes. And I wasn't disappointed to be a runner- up. I was so happy to be on the short list of six – for a few weeks it even made me think that perhaps I could write after all.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
SC: Hmmm. I'm a bit rubbish at these kinds of questions. I think I tend to always be looking ahead rather than considering past events but I suppose it was the beginning, in 1993, of my ongoing working and personal relationship with my wife.

CD: What is the saddest thing you've ever heard of or seen?
SC: Another hard one. I find injustice, dumb tragedy and premature death pretty hard to take. Perhaps that's because I'm not religious so I never have the excuse 'its part of a larger plan' to fall back on – nor the life-after-death get-out clause. I once confided in a friend that I found the whole idea of death – of non-existence – a bit too freaky. "Me too," he said, "I'm thinking of writing a letter."

CD: If there were one thing you'd change about yourself what would it be?
SC: I'd like to be a better writer; I'd like to be a better guitar player. Oh, and I'd definitely like to be more efficient so I could achieve more every day.

CD: What is happiness?
SC: Gosh, where do I start? Listening to Rush, playing guitar in a rock band, drinking champagne on holiday with my wife, learning something new about the universe, seeing somewhere I've never seen before, meeting up with friends to chat about nothing, finishing the day having written something, reading a good book, sitting in the sunshine. I could go on, the list is pretty long for me.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
SC: Get dressed. Actually, that's not always true.


Anonymous marly youmans said...


Another grand consideration and interview: I love these, especially when it's a book that I might not have bumped into on my own.

Oh, I saw you were on Jeff V's list of the best books of the past decade--confetti!

Sat Feb 06, 03:06:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Marly, The Sun Kings is a great book - very well written and held my attention all the way through (high praise because I'm easily distracted).

And thank you for mentioning Jeff VanderMeer's list on Omnivoracious. That's kind of you - and very kind of Jeff to think of my book. I was delighted and felt hugely honoured to be there.

Sat Feb 06, 11:13:00 am  
Blogger Mary said...

Now that you mention the sunspots, I do remember that event. Couldn't have placed in in 2003. Fascinating interview, particularly the idea that the earth could be warming up because the sun has been quiet. I'm right there with you on believing that we shouldn't take the earth for granted no matter what the cause of global warming is.

Sun Feb 07, 06:10:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I think I was too entrenched in my own little life that year, Mary. I think I'd have taken more notice if I'd realised the significance. It's a really interesting topic, and a lot more to it than I could write here, of course!

Tue Feb 09, 11:24:00 am  
Blogger Jud said...

I can't wait to give this a read. I never knew...

Wed Feb 10, 01:14:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

It's a good 'un, Jud - I highly recommend!

Just today there's reports of GPS failing due to sunspots as the sun becomes more 'noisy' - so all very topical

Wed Feb 10, 02:12:00 pm  

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