Friday, 15 April 2016

Chasing the Sun

Chasing the Sun - The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life
by Richard Cohen (pub. Simon and Schuster)
This remarkable book could as easily be titled “Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the Sun....and then some”. Richard Cohen’s research into just about every possible solar scientific fact and historical discovery you can think of, all laced with delightful anecdotal titbits, has a breadth and depth which left me impressed, page after page, from start to finish.

Discovering the Sun

Sunset, Santa Monica, CA
At 604 pages, this is not a quick read, but a real treat to be dipped into and savoured. Divided into six parts, each with a specific theme, the 32 chapters stand alone making it possible to either read this book from start to finish, or forage around for the most appealing and appetising topics, depending on personal taste. I started at the beginning and worked my way through, taking plenty of time to absorb and enjoy the many aspects of the Sun presented. In the Part 2, entitled “Discovering the Sun”, as an astrologer I kept thinking “If only... if only I’d had a resource like this when I first started studying astrology”. In this section Cohen presents a wealth of interesting, entertaining and very comprehensive accounts of the early astronomers, from the Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians through the Greeks and Arabs to Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo and Newton. Back in the early 1980’s, studying for an astrological qualification, I had to read up on the history of astrology and needed to know enough about it in order to pass the history paper in the set exam. I struggled to engage with the historical facts, but had I had access to this book the whole subject, for me, would have come to life; the reading and revision would have been far more enjoyable!


But Cohen’s research takes the reader far further than back in time. In the chapter entitled “Eclipses and Enlightenment” he travels to the Antarctic to see the solar eclipse which took place on 23rd November 2003, and takes the reader with him to share this bizarre and extraordinary experience of the Sun. In Queen Maud Land (70°28′ W, 11°30′ E) we join 60 eclipse-watchers standing on the ice in a temperature of –22°C, listening to a violinist from the Scottish Symphony Orchestra play Mozart’s G Major Concerto, the Blue Danube Waltz and Elton John’s Something about the Way You Look Tonight as a warm up to the main event – a total eclipse of the Sun. This was the first total eclipse to be witnessed from Antarctica and is vividly described.


Sunspots, the differing qualities of light and its effects in the areas of sport and crime, sunbathing, skin cancer, SAD (seasonal affective disorder), photosynthesis in plants, the hibernation and migration of birds and animals and the effects of sunlight, or the lack of it, on creatures of the deep are all covered in the book. The presence of the Sun in art – here Cohen focuses on the art of the Renaissance through to the work of Turner – and the role of the Sun in photography and film making are examined. I enjoy small snippets of information, and relished the story of how the film industry in the US had originally been based on the East coast, but moved to the West coast, to a small suburb of Los Angeles called Hollywood, because of the quality of the light there. 


The role of the Sun in politics gets a whole chapter to itself, but even more fascinating was the author’s exploration of the Sun in classical and pop music, from Mozart to the Beatles. Cohen finds solar symbolism and connections in opera, such as Puccini’s La Bohème, Wagner’s Ring and Mozart’s The Magic Flute, all discussed with accompanying interesting stories. The Beatles’ Good Day Sunshine and Here Comes the Sun only begin to scratch the surface of the presence of the Sun in popular music. Turning on the radio soon after reading this chapter, the first song I heard on an easy-listening station was about the Sun!

Chasing the Sun is not only packed with material in the main text, it also has a wealth of footnotes, each of them a supplement to the topic under discussion as well as being interesting in their own right. I usually find footnotes a bit dull and worthy, but Cohen has presented them as relevant and fascinating additions to the “main plot” covered in the text. The book is incredibly well-researched with 44 pages at the end where all numbered references in each chapter are listed, should you want to take your reading further. Even this part of the book is enjoyable to dip into as it is interspersed with amusing cartoons about the Sun. I bought this book as a treat for myself and I’ve not been disappointed. It’s in hard back (that qualifies as a treat!) and my copy bears a sticker on the front saying “As read on BBC Radio 4”. It’s easy to understand how and why this book would have been good to listen to because it’s good to read. And for me, as an astrologer, it has helped deepen my understanding of the role of the Sun in the natal chart as well as making me more aware of, and appreciative of, the star that gives us life.

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