If you’re anything like me, you couldn’t possibly become a scientist because there’s no way you could narrow your interests down to just one or two fields. Instead, you will teach yourself by reading science books on topics that interest you. But where to start? Answer: Start with Eating the Sun, written and illustrated by Ella Frances Sanders, published this month by Penguin Books, and follow the steps below.
Step 1: Buy Eating the Sun from your local bookshop.
Step 2: Read and make note of anything that sparks your interest that you would like to know more about.
Step 3: Navigate to the chapter of choice below.
Step 4: Buy the recommended book from your local shop.
Step 5: Read, enjoy, learn.
Step 6: Repeat steps 3-5 until all curiosity is satiated.
I Am Made from Carbon
In the opening of Eating the Sun, Ella Frances Sanders echoes the fact popularized by Carl Sagan that we are made from the remnants of stars. Forty thousand tons of star stuff falls to Earth each year, and 18% of you is made of carbon. To learn more about carbon’s role in life on Earth, from the Big Bang, to star deaths, and your complete story from your carbon-made baby clothes to your carbon-made coffin, read Symphony in C: Carbon and the Evolution of (Almost) Everything, Robert M. Hazen’s poetic biography of the most necessary chemical element on Earth, which will go on sale June 11 of this year.
Eating the Sun
Ella Frances Sanders tells us that we are solar powered, but as animals, we cannot obtain our energy directly from the sun the way plants do, so we must eat plants, who do eat the sun. To learn more about how we get energy from the sun and what a modern society of indoor lighting, indoor workdays, and vitamin D supplements is doing to us, read Linda Geddes’ Chasing the Sun: How the Science of Sunlight Shapes Our Bodies and Minds, which goes on sale October 1 this year.
Plants Behave Better
In Eating the Sun, we learn that trees share food and help to nourish their competitors when they are sick or struggling. Learn more about how and why trees help each other survive in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate–Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben.
Milky Solar Galaxy Systems
In Eating the Sun, we learn that the Milky Way is in a supercluster, a group of large, densely packed galaxies. Our supercluster is named Laniakea, Hawaiian for “immeasurable heaven.” Learn more about Laniakea and how astrophysicist Hélène Courtois with a team of researches discovered Laniakea in Courtois’ Finding our Place in the Universe: How We Discovered Laniakea—the Milky Way’s Home, which goes on sale May 21 this year.
Atoms Are Works of Art
Sanders makes a case for Atom Galleries, hypothetical art museums where we can look at the beauty of atoms and be gobsmacked at how these tiny unassuming things are responsible for everything that exists. The next best thing is last year’s release of The Atom: A Visual Tour. With vivid full-color photographic illustrations, this book describes the amazing discoveries scientists have made about the fundamental building blocks of matter–from quarks to nuclear fission to the “God particle”–and explains them accessibly and concisely.
Clouds to Break Your Heart
Until reading Eating the Sun, I never realized how much something as passive and distant as clouds determines my “fate,” but Sanders is right: clouds, which are likely to be covering two-thirds of the planet at any given time, determine whether I go out, what transportation I use, what I wear, and how I spend my weekend. She explains that clouds are difficult for meteorologists to predict. Just how difficult? Pick up a copy of The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast by Andrew Blum, on sale June 25th of this year.
You Are Mostly Bacteria
Sanders tells us that the ratio of bacteria cells to the rest of the cells in your body is about one to one (despite reportings that it is ten to one). She tells us that gut flora are connected to the brain by your enteric nervous system, which acts independently from your central nervous system. Your gut flora can influence your behavior, perception of the world, and mood. Ed Young’s 2016 New York Times bestselling I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life about the role of bacteria and other microbes living inside us has gotten rave reviews from the NYT Book Review, Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian.
It Was Only a Dream
I was fascinated to read in Eating the Sun that the energy conserved by sleeping when compared to staying up all night is the equivalent of eating or not eating a small piece of cheese! Turns out that sleeping’s benefit is not about energy. It is probably more to do with information processing. Drawing on fresh and forgotten research, Alice Robb’s Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey is a revelatory foray into the new science of dreams—how they work, what they’re for, and how we can reap the benefits of our own nocturnal life. Why We Dream is out in hardcover now and is coming to paperback this November.
Sanders explains how Charles Darwin, with his book On the Origin of Species, introduced the idea that populations evolve slowly over generations, adaptation being the driving direction of that evolution. Some popular science readers will shy away from reading the “master” works like Darwin’s books, perhaps because they think it won’t be accessible, but his books are surprisingly relevant and readable today.
Eating the Sun also talks specifically about human evolution, as does Darwin’s The Descent of Man. There are at least a dozen other species of early humans that existed, says Sanders, some that even lived at the same time is Homo sapiens. If you are indeed looking for a modern day book on human evolution, I recommend Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived or his more recent Humanimal. You will learn that you have Neanderthal DNA in you, perhaps even Denisovan DNA as well.
Eating the Sun gives us this handy trick to reading the periodic table: Elements above 92 are man-made. Interestingly, there are some scientists who believe there isn’t a limit to how many elements can be added to the periodic table, since their properties are predicted here, while others think there is a point where atoms simply cannot get any heavier. Chemistry gets the short end of the stick when it comes to pop science books, so I was glad to see chemist Tim James publish last month a “quirky illustrated guide” to how the periodic table relates to real life. Publishers Weekly describes Elemental: How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Nearly) Everything as an “accessible peak into the history of chemistry and the periodic table” that can be enjoyed by a wide audience.