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Interesting but flawed
on June 22, 2012
Richard Cohen has compiled an encyclopaedic book covering every aspect of the Sun - in mythology, culture, the arts, astronomy and the other sciences. It is well worth reading for the many interesting facts and anecdotes.
However, it does contain many flaws - for one thing, it wanders off-topic at times. He talks about Arthur C. Clarke's story "The Star" (my favourite short story) and Asimov's "Nightfall", which are great stories but nothing whatsoever to do with the sun. He also talks about global warming, being seduced by Piers Corbyn's theories, to which he devotes several pages, where he swallows the assertion by climate-change deniers that scientists tampered with the evidence. There is also a discussion of photography, which admittedly requires light to work, but it is not strictly to do with the sun, any more than the workings of the eye are.
Another flaw is the fact that the setting sun shines along some of the streets of new York on certain dates because they are aligned 29 degrees to the East, which Cohen makes quite a big thing of. But the same sort of thing would happen if it was 19 degrees or 9 degrees, or the the East, so it is absolutely unremarkable.
There are many other examples of science which is badly explained and confusing, or just plain wrong:
p25 The sun is not overhead at midday at the equinox, except at the equator. Also, the sun does not seem to "linger for several minutes" at dawn.
p26 The speed of the Earth varies by 3%, not 6%.
p49 The explanation of precession of the equinoxes is unclear. I know what he is trying to say, but cannot make sense of his explanation.
p53 "Most pyramids oriented to the Equinox were aligned so that, on that date, they seemed to swallow the setting Sun...". This does not make any sense to me.
p60. The area of earth which experiences an annular eclipse is not always one sixth, it can be much less, and almost zero.
p181. Queen Maud Land is 70 degrees South, not West.
p201. It is not true that no star shines for more than 11 billion years. Red dwarf stars will burn for hundreds of billions of years.
p212. Electrical forces do not bind the atomic nucleus together, electrical repulsion tries to force it assunder. The Strong Nuclear Force binds the nucleus together.
p237 Cohen claims that the present solar maximum will be very strong, but it is now close to maximum, and the sunspot count is very low.
p389 Cohen tells us that 240 degrees F is 11% above boiling point. This is true if we convert to the Celsius scale, but not Fahrenheit, and on the kelvin scale it is 3%. So talking about percentages is actually meaningless.
p523. The scattering of alpha particles by atomic nuclei is due to electrical repulsion, and is nothing to to do with quantum mechanical tunnelling.
p584. The sun was not 186 million miles in diameter around 2.5 billion years ago!
There are other things which seemed wrong or unclear, which makes one wonder how much else is wrong. I think Cohen should stay away from Science writing in future!