Reviewed 9/20/2010

Eating the Sun, by Oliver Morton

How Plants Power the Planet
Oliver Morton
New York: HarperCollins, December 2008




ISBN-13 978-0-00-716364-9
ISBN 0-00-716364-9 460pp. HC/GSI $28.95

Photosynthesis is devilishly hard to fathom. Witness the many long scientific careers devoted to its unraveling that Oliver Morton chronicles in his latest book. But, as he observes, the natural wizardry by which green plants turn water and carbon dioxide into their own substance (and food for us), releasing the oxygen we breathe as a byproduct, is what drives our world. Life truly runs on the power of the Sun. We have still not reached the goal of completely understanding the process. But the journey so far has been fascinating. Morton shows us diverse facets of that long investigation, carried out by as idiosyncratic a cast of characters as you'll find in the history of science.

Morton has a gift for describing such characters' foibles without demeaning them. He keeps a balance, mentioning good points as well as bad. And he never forgets that the real star of the narrative tale is that network of molecules hiding in the chloroplasts of every green-plant cell, using photons to shuffle atoms and ions around in ways we are still not clever enough to master. Our efforts have been complex and painstaking, with numerous false starts. Morton's account of our progress is necessarily detailed and technical, but it never becomes dry or stilted. He does get some things wrong, but only a few, and in my judgement these are forgivable mistakes.

Those with an appetite for science will find a full meal here. There's a good deal for history buffs as well. Any reader will enjoy Morton's ability to impart details of place or personality and his way with a phrase. These 412 pages of narrative are in short a very enjoyable education in a very abstruse topic.

Nor does Morton miss the big picture: the context through which we perceive this daily miracle. His multidisciplinary account encompasses nuclear physics, fission and fusion, the quest for knowledge of life on other worlds and the origin of life on this one, the energy budget of the planet and how we are affecting it, and what we should do to avoid too great an effect on that energy budget.

Yes, there are areas in which we should learn to lighten the load we place on the environment. But there are others where strengthening the environment's load-bearing capacity has to be seen as a plausible alternative. We will soon be eight billion people. We will want food, and we will want the products of energy-intensive industry. We will want to move around the world which is our home and our principal source of wonder. We will need a healthy biosphere to keep the biogeochemical cycles of the world turning as we do so. We have to take those desires as givens, and arrange the world to fit them to the best of our capacity. We can oppose current patterns of intensive agriculture as long as we find other ways to feed people. We can constrict fossil-fuel use as long as we don't restrict our fellow humans to poverty as we do so. We can't let a romantic idea that nature should be free to carry on regardless dominate our thinking; nature is everywhere under our influence already.


We are on the flight deck, and we are alone. We are at the controls, and we have no option but to use them. And we know where we want to go. The fact that we have only a dim idea of how to fly means we must act carefully and thoughtfully, not that we must no act."

– Pages 392-3

Some Perspectives on Power 1
Resting human 80 to 100 W
Racing human 500 W
Human civilization 13,000,000,000,000,000 W
Heat from Earth's core 40,000,000,000,000,000 W
Mount St. Helens eruption (1989) 50,000,000,000,000,000 W
Ecosystem net primary productivity (NPP) Sea: 60,000,000,000,000,000 W
Land: 70,000,000,000,000,000 W
Human share of NPP Sea: 5,000,000,000,000,000 W
Land: 30,000,000,000,000,000 W
Nine billion Americans 100,000,000,000,000,000 W
Drop in heat of evaporation due to deforestation 240,000,000,000,000,000 W
Indian Ocean tsunami (2004) 2,000,000,000,000,000,000 W
Power Earth receives from Sun 170,000,000,000,000,000,000 W

Eating the Sun is rewarding to read, as was Morton's first book Mapping Mars.2 A number of diagrams and graphs illuminate points in the text. There is a glossary, an extensive bibliography, an excellent index, and a good set of chapter notes (presented as suggestions for further reading.) I've compiled a rather long list of errata, but these errata in no way detract from the value of the book. Most of them are Britishisms: either spellings or expressions common in that country. While the book is well organized, I would not recommend it as a reference. I do rate it a keeper however, and one whose fresh perspectives may cause the reader's own views about climate change to shift.

1 Information on power levels comes from pages 348-356.
2 See My review of Mapping Mars.
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