Here comes the sun offers a richly readable guide to all things solar

To avoid sunstroke wear red pants! Steve Jones’ Here comes the sun offers a richly readable guide to all things solar

  • Professor Steve Jones gives a richly readable guide to all things solar 
  • Jones, a geneticist, is one of the UK’s best writers of popular science
  • His ability to home in on a subject’s most memorable facts enliven his novel

Here comes the sun by Steve Jones (Little Brown £20, 368 pp)

SCIENCE 

Here comes the sun

by Steve Jones (Little Brown £20, 368 pp)

‘The sun is God,’ the artist JMW Turner said on his deathbed. Cultures throughout human history have agreed. Monuments, from Stonehenge to Mayan pyramids, testify to that.

It’s not difficult to see why we have attributed divinity to the sun. As Professor Steve Jones remarks in this richly readable guide to all things solar, it ‘has brought life to our planet and light to our lives, it regulates the days and the seasons and has helped to form mountains, plains, oceans and deserts’.

Jones, a geneticist at University College London, is one of the country’s best writers of popular science. His wit, insight and ability to home in on a subject’s most memorable facts enliven Here Comes The Sun from the start.

In every second, he points out, our local star emits more energy than we humans have managed to generate since our ancestors first learned how to light a fire.

The rays of sunlight that strike our earth have made quite a journey to get to us. They consist of vast numbers of elementary particles known as photons, which spend on average 200,000 years careering about the Sun’s fiery core before they reach its surface. The trip to Earth then takes eight minutes and 20 seconds. 

These rays are the bringers of life and the dispellers of disease. Too little sun is bad news for us: the Edinburgh doctor Caleb Saleeby was right when, in the 1920s, he identified rickets, tuberculosis and depression as ‘diseases of darkness’. In 1924, he founded the Sunlight League to promote what he called ‘helio-hygiene’ — sunlight, he said, was ‘nature’s universal disinfectant, stimulant and tonic’ and we should all get as much of it as we can.

Rickets, for example, is caused by lack of vitamin D, the main natural source of which is sunlight. In Renaissance Italy, the disease affected the children of the rich, because they were kept indoors to preserve fashionably pale complexions, while peasant children laboured outdoors in the sunshine. In smoky Victorian cities, there was precious little sunshine to be found, so five times as many children in Southwark suffered from rickets as in the leafy suburbs of Chelsea.

Health boost: A day in the sunshine. Jones, a geneticist at University College London, is one of the country’s best writers of popular science

Too much sun, however, can be as bad as too little. It’s easy to laugh at the frantic fears expressed by the author of an Edwardian book called The Effects Of Tropical Light On White Men, who warned that an excess of the Sun’s rays could cause ‘headaches, insomnia . . . excessive masturbation, insanity and suicide’. (The only protection, he said, was to wear red underwear.)

Minor consequences of too much sunlight are moles and blemishes. In the U.S., these are more common on car drivers’ left arms. In Australia, where they drive on the other side of the road, they are more common on the right.

At its worst, sunlight contributes to the onset of skin cancer. But it can also be beneficial. Many cancers are less common in sunny places; prostate cancer strikes 80 in 100,000 men in Iceland, but not even as many as ten in 100,000 in Malaysia. Calabria in the south of Italy sees a third fewer deaths from cancer a year than Liguria in the gloomier north.

There are other unexpected effects when the Sun shines and the temperature rises. Nine months after a heatwave in the U.S., the birth rate falls. ‘Sex and sticky weather do not go together,’ as Jones points out.

People become ruder; hot-tempered car drivers press their horns more frequently. On Facebook, the use of swearwords is ten times greater on the hottest days of the year than it is on the coldest.

We are in danger of a new detachment from daylight, as a generation addicted to computer screens retreats indoors.

While UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners insist that every prisoner should spend at least one hour a day in the open, only one in six British teenagers does that. It looks like time to renew our interest in the God-like attributes of the sun.

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