Eating the Sun: Oliver Morton's Sweeping Take on Photosynthesis, Plant Evolution and Renewable Energy

eating the sun cover imageThose of you who, as I do, have long felt that photosynthesis was the unsung hero of the energy debate will find much to like about Oliver Morton's "Eating the Sun." Though ostensibly about the history of photosynthesis, this epic volume is so much more: an account of the planet's early development, a vivid recounting of some of the twentieth century's most heated scientific rivalries and discoveries and a shrewd, almost philosophical, take on the climate and energy crises.

Morton, who has written for several publications, including The New Yorker and The Economist, and who is now Nature's chief news and features editor, has the keen eye of a scientist and the flowing writing style of an accomplished novelist. Where another might have struggled with the sheer scope of this book, Morton ably guides the reader through the dense narrative, describing every technology, theory and equation down to the minutiae with the ease of an accomplished scholar-scientist (at over 400 pages, that is quite a feat).
He does a great job of maintaining the balance between light storytelling (even philosophical rumination) and detailed analysis -- complete with the appropriate figures, graphs and equations. While I'd wager that this book will appeal more to the science-inclined, it is still interesting enough, and easy to read, for anybody with even a remote interest in photosynthesis or renewable energy to read it.

Despite its length, the book is never a dull read, smoothly transitioning from a section on the origins of life to a wonky chapter on the challenges and opportunities of clean technologies. Indeed, unlike most books which purport to promote the benefits of clean energy, Morton's actually does so by first convincing you of the significance of photosynthesis (which, after all, lies at the root of the energy debate), its role in shaping our world and what it can teach us about the different forms of renewable energy.

He captures this sentiment beautifully in the following passage:

Whether it is in living things or in some technology inspired by the workings of life, there will be novelty. For two billion years or more -- in some cases ever since biochemistry emerged from geochemistry -- the energy that has flowed from the sun into the biosphere nd eventually back out to space again has done so through unchanging channels. Creatures and species have come and gone, but the basics of metabolism -- of nitrogen fixation, or methane generation, or respiration, or photosynthesis -- have remained, atomic architectures endlessly reborn from the genome of the world. Tomorrow those near-eternal verities will be open to change. When our knowledge of life's most fundamental processes allows us to begin redesigning and embellishing them rather than just studying them, a whole range of new chemical technologies will become possible.

As Morton told me during a recent conversation, he is, at heart, an eternal optimist, and it's hard not to feel hopeful after reading the book. A strong advocate for photovoltaic and biofuel technologies -- he likes to point out that the biosphere is exposed to more solar energy over a one-hour period than it can use during an entire year -- he is just as comfortable discussing the properties of switchgrass and Miscanthus as he is the benefits of Graetzel, or dye-sensitized, solar cells.

Though he has some clear preferences, Morton is a believer in the old dictum that "more is better": that a broad-based approach to alternative energy that embraces solar, wind, wave, bio-hydrogen and, yes, even nuclear presents the best opportunity for humanity to succeed. He even talks positively -- though cautiously -- about geo-engineering, specifically ocean iron fertilization, which he believes deserves more consideration. (One of my favorite sections in the book is the one in which he describes James Lovelock's work on the Gaia Theory and its significance for the climate crisis.)

He is also a contrarian (at least by environmentalist standards) when it comes to organic farming; though he agrees that it has its benefits, he believes that industrial, or large-scale, farming can be preferable, especially when it comes to maximizing production. In this respect, Morton takes a more nuanced view, arguing that humans can do better than nature in some cases.

I can't recommend this book enough; though I didn't have as much time to carefully read through, and enjoy, it as I would have liked, I have no doubt that I will come back to it when I have more time. If you're not yet convinced, you may want to add Heliophage, a blog in which he writes about topics related to "Eating the Sun," to your list of RSS feeds. Also, if you're in the Boston area, you should check out the New England Conference on Clean Energy, at which Morton will be the keynote speaker (and signing books).

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