Non-Fiction Reviews

Living With The Stars

How the human body is connected with the life cycles of the Earth, the planets and the stars

(2015) Karel Schrijver & Iris Schrijver, Oxford University Press, £18.99, hrdbk, ix + 202pp, ISBN 978-0-198-72743-9


I have to say that Living With The Stars is not exactly the book I expected, though it is an interesting read and provides an out of the ordinary perspective even if it has some peculiarities (a British academic press using Americanised spellings: 'sulfur' indeed).

Now, this topic is one of a number close to my heart. For many years, one of my stock public outreach talks has been on bioastronomy. So given the book's subtitle, How the human body is connected with the life cycles of the Earth, the planets and the stars, I had expected it to include things such as how the daily diurnal cycle due to the Earth's rotation with respect to the Sun affects human physiology: morning alertness, the post-lunch dip and so forth. How our body clock drifts in isolation from its daily, luminal resetting. How you can tell the time of day by looking at different flowering plants. How the monthly menstruation cycle relates to the Moon's orbit about the Earth. How the creation of annual tree rings in trees' life cycle is due to the Earth's orbit about the Sun and the utility of studying them (dendrochronology) is of use to elucidate climate change, or even giving us longer chains of understanding such as how looking at species (for instance coral) that not only have annual pattern of rings but monthly and daily patterns, tell us how many days there are in a month and months in a year and, that while this is not news (just look up), by studying fossils of these species (looking down) it is possible to work out that the Earth's day length has slowly but steadily increased over millions of years as our planet's rotation has slowed, and in turn enable us to calculate the Earth-Moon distance millions of years ago and so discover that the Moon is moving away from our planet and that this, through evolution, resonates in our own human biology (the aforesaid monthly menstruation cycle)… None of this is in this book though I would have thought it fairly central to seeing 'how the human body is connected with the life cycles of the Earth, the planets and the stars'.

Fortunately, I also expected it to include how all the heavier than hydrogen elements in our body come from past supernova explosions. How stars have their own life cycle. How elements cycle within our body. How small variations in the Earth's tilt, its orbital eccentricity and precession of the equinoxes are a 'pacemaker' of the 'glacial-interglacial cycle. All this is included in this offering.

Also in the mix is that cosmic rays create radioactive elements such as carbon-14 which in turn is incorporated into the body, and that continental drift as a key component in elemental deep (slow) cycling.

Living With The Stars, as far as it goes, still provides more than an interesting perspective, and Karel and Iris Schrijver do largely tell what they cover in an easy-to-read style. Their prose is unencumbered with references as, as the authors themselves point out, readers can easily use a search engine to instigate their own personal lines of further enquiry. This is certainly not a problem for the type of reader that is likely to benefit and enjoy this book. However I do feel that Living With The Stars would have been greatly enhanced with simple diagrams of the cycles and processes discussed. Instead, the book is text-only (nothing wrong with that and SF2 Concatenation largely has that format) and the book's font is a little on the small size. Consequently, I find myself in the unusual (for me) position of recommending this book's e-book, rather than print, edition.

While this book has a bold ambition of scope – its scale of vision and perspective is far bigger than that we mundanely employ – and the authors have expertise in astronomy and clinical pathology respectively, neither particularly appear to be polymaths. And so their story is largely confined to the areas of their respective expertise, there is little exposition outside of the perspective their professional specialisms provide, and nor could I discern synergisms between them. Not only is there none of the afore-mentioned material I had expected, the co-evolution of life and planet tale is largely missing. And then there are sub-narratives within the overall story that are strangely absent: so, for example we get Milankovitch but not the impact Milankovitch cycles had on hominid evolution (hence us); we get some discussion on exoplanets but not on the possibility of life elsewhere and that it too would be bound by the same rules and phenomena (elemental cycling, continental drift, physiological constraints) which they discuss that affect us. Also, the text is very occasionally (only in a very few places) a little confusing. Strikingly for me, on page 65 we are told that "some two-thirds of the carbon in our bodies is coming to us from the on-going cycle of photosynthesis of growing plants on land and phytoplankton in the seas, or the consumption of these plant products by animals. About one-third has been locked up in subterranean oil, coal and gas deposits for millions to hundreds of millions of years, having been released over the past century…"  Actually all  the carbon in our bodies comes from photosynthesis from plants, or from animals that eat plants and phytoplankton that photosynthesises! After a little thought and re-reading the previous page I elucidated that the authors were referring to (fossil fuel) carbon that had shifted from the deep (slow) carbon cycle to the shallow (fast) carbon cycle that is now in our atmosphere and so accessible to plants (and other photosynthesisers).

And then there are – how shall I say – errors of nuance. Again on Milankovitch, we are told (p100) that "the gravitational pulls of the major planets force slight changes in the orbit of the Earth around the Sun, which causes the Sun with slightly modified brightness in the Earth's skies (on timescales of hundreds of thousands of years). That too modifies the climate".  Now this, in the strictest of senses, is not untrue from the perspective on any one point on the Earth's surface, but it distinctly gives the impression that when the Earth is cool (during glacials) our whole planet receives less  solar energy than during warm times (interglacials). Actually the Earth receives the same  amount of energy in a year during glacials as it does during interglacials. The Milankovitch difference actually relates to the amount the land-dominated northern hemisphere receives during the summer as that is fundamental to melting winter snow: less snow melt means more carryover snow to the next year and so annual accumulation leading to a glacial, and the opposite with more snow melt. That is why Milankovitch curves typically come with both a latitude and a month of the year!

But don't let this book's simplifications put you off. In attempting to simplify a big perspective sometimes it is difficult to suitably phrase matters. Now, all books have their blips, but readers of this one are unlikely to have much, if any, prior knowledge of the subject matter: so care is required. Readers also need to be told that there is much devil in the detail missing even if they do not know (or are told) exactly what is that detail. This is important because, blips aside, we really do know far more about the Earth system than the authors let on. (Neither of the authors seem to have Earth system science and/or environmental science perspectives; maybe I am wrong and maybe they were keeping it hidden so as not to confuse readers with too much information.) Such reader guidance could have been done in the introduction. (Indeed the introduction itself acknowledges the role Wikipedia played in the book's writing, which is a little worrying as – while Wikipedia is useful for identifying pointers to factual information – its perspective is limited, its statements should never ever be taken on trust, and its coverage of primary research is decidedly patchy: it could not be anything else and nothing makes up for genuine scholarship. I wonder if this is part of the problem?)

To be fair to the authors, the book's publishers and indeed you – the prospective readers – that there omissions and potentially misleading superficiality is not too much of a problem for the uninitiated and it does enable the authors and readers to cut to the chase. Be thankful for this but be aware that you are being cut to the chase. Do you really need to know that Wegner met with venomous criticism when he proposed continental drift? Do you need to know that Milankovitch variation only affects the climate because we currently live on an asymmetrical planet with most of the northern hemisphere dominated by land and the southern by ocean? Of course you don't, but equally you expect the book's wording to convey an accurate impression.

Nonetheless, all this takes us to the book's very sound conclusion: that we (humans) are not mere observers of nature and the cosmos, but intrinsically bound up with it. This perspective better places us to ensure our survival and that of the planet.

Of course to those who do not have a grounding in science may find themselves a little overwhelmed by the vista they are offered. Here the authors have thoughtfully provided end of chapter bullet points summarising the key issues.

This brings me on to whom this book is likely to appeal.

Living With The Stars will obviously be of interest to those who are unaware of our connections with the cosmos, and here be of most use to those whose science is only at mid-school level (in Britain that is GCSE / O-level). Conversely, most scientists who are into SF (that is many of whom visit this website) will know much of that is covered in this book, but they can still consider giving this title to others as a birthday or Christmas present. This site also is visited by those into SF who are not scientists and some of these may occasionally enjoy popular science but who find magazines like New Scientist just a bit too much for anything other than an occasional skim read. For them Living With The Stars will give them a fresh and a grander perspective on our place on the planet and position in the cosmos, and even perhaps they will find out why we (scientists into SF) get as much from 'hard SF' as other genre aficionados do from fantasy: unlike fantasy, hard SF (as distinct from 'mundane SF') has one foot firmly in the real world (even if the other is in a highly speculative or even purely hypothetical place) and science (as does SF) does have bags of sense of wonder only, unlike SF, science is firmly based on reality. Living With The Stars provides a glimpse of the grander perspectives science can offer.

As we carry on with our lives we are very much caught up with the now and the near, we rarely consider our position on a larger space-time scale. Those that have not yet considered this viewpoint will find Living With The Stars illuminating. And if, as the authors suggest, it encourages its readers to further their investigations online then that can be no bad thing.

Jonathan Cowie

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