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Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet [Paperback]

Oliver Morton
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 17, 2009 0007163657 978-0007163656 Reprint
From acclaimed science journalist Oliver Morton comes Eating the Sun, a fascinating, lively, profound look at photosynthesis, nature's greatest miracle. From the physics, chemistry, and cellular biology that make photosynthesis possible, to the quirky and competitive scientists who first discovered the beautifully honed mechanisms of photosynthesis, to the modern energy crisis we face today, Eating the Sun offers a complete biography of the earth through the lens of this common but crucial process.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The cycle of photosynthesis is the cycle of life, says science journalist Morton (Mapping Mars). Green leaves trap sunlight and use it to absorb carbon dioxide from the air and emit life-giving oxygen in its place. Indeed, plants likely created Earth's life-friendly oxygen- and nitrogen-rich biosphere. In the first part, Morton, chief news and features editor of the leading science journal, Nature, traces scientists' quest to understand how photosynthesis works at the molecular level. In part two, Morton addresses evidence of how plants may have kick-started the complex life cycle on Earth. The book's final part considers photosynthesis in relation to global warming, for, he says, the Earth's plant-based balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen is broken: in burning vast amounts of fossil fuels, we are emitting more carbon dioxide than the plants can absorb. But Morton also explores the possibility that our understanding of photosynthesis might be harnessed to regain that balance. Readers should persevere through (or skim) the more technical discussions in the first part, for what follows is a vast, elegant synthesis of biology, physics and environmental science that can inform our discussions of urgent issues. (Nov. 4)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Morton’s curiosity-driven ruminations concern photosynthesis in a work imbued with wonder and worry about that biological process. Worry, because anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions outstrip the uptake capacity of plants; wonder, that they have that ability in the first place. These dueling moods recur throughout Morton’s narrative as he recounts discoveries about photosynthesis, an intricate chemical cascade that daily begins with sunlight and ends in the longest rhythms of geological time. Unshackling the science from its chronological history, Morton opens with the applications of radioactive isotopes such as carbon 14 to investigations of photosynthesis and in due course presents pioneers of plant physiology. At all points, whether through the history books or personal encounters, Morton depicts the discrete problem that piques a scientist or lends a philosophical cast to his scientific motivations, and he seems especially taken by James Lovelock, author of the so-called Gaia theory. Morton is as insightful observing a single tree as he is explaining plant life’s interconnections with the biosphere and the totality of earth history. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (November 17, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007163657
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007163656
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 5.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #255,867 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
The book focuses on photosynthesis and it's relation to plant life, animal life, and the history of life and the climate. It is the only popular science book I know that focuses on the amazing and wonderful process of photosynthesis.

The first section - Carbon, Energy, and Light - describes the discovery of various aspects of photosynthesis. This history, and the scientists involved are the focus. Consequently, there are interesting stories of various scientists, often competing with each other.

The second section - Beginnings, Fossils, Forests and Feedback, Grass - looks at how plant life began, developed, and worked to allow animal life to develop. This section focuses on the science rather than the people, although contributors are noted.

The third section - Humanity, Energy - looks at the future: climate change and human activity that affects it. It is the shortest section, and doesn't look at these topics in depth. But this is understandable, as by the time we start this section, we have already read 314 pages of dense content.

I really enjoyed this book, especially how it drew together the strands of plant and animal energetics. It develops long, and often subtle, strands of scientific fact and reasoning. However, in small parts the writing can be annoying: foot notes not fundamentally related to the topic, philosphical musing and "waxing poetically". A few parts I skipped because they didn't seem interesting to me (e.g., Priestly and the discovery of oxygen).

Another reviewer condemned the book to a 2 star rating on the basis of one point in the context of a 450+ page book.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
Yes, it is true that science writers are not necessarily excellent scientists themselves, but who really expects them to be? Morton, as any science writer of quality, does a fine job of telling a technical story to inform the popular reading audience, but also to make the science interesting - interesting, to the point of whetting the appetite for more detailed study elsewhere. His story is photosynthesis, a topic that everyone knows a little about (carbon dioxide in, oxygen out, leaves are green), but few know just how fascinatingly intricate is the biochemistry and the biophysics. Does anyone recall that carbon dioxide does not get split to release oxygen, but rather to make the sugars and proteins in the plants?

The biophysics part clearly is the jewel in "Eating the Sun." Morton's repeated demonstrations of light energy translating to chemical energy, and the marvelous variations here, will cause the reader to keep saying, "Oh, yeah!" Because the author is a skilled writer and storyteller, the fabric of plant life / animal life gets explained well. He also does a decent job of describing the evolution of photosynthesis through the eons, including the changing biochemistry of life and the atmospheric compositions. Scientists he deems crucial to the discoveries on photosynthesis receive his good press.

One could complain that the author's bias toward those various scientists could make a reader smile. He appears to like scientists who show modesty, display a bit of eccentricity, and express (or feign) interest in nonscientific activities (hiking, gardening, etc.). Since he also has a tepid confidence in free markets, these choices probably blend understandably.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A grand read December 1, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Oliver Morton has woven a cloth of pure gold from the threads that trace the story of photosynthesis. Eating the Sun is a model of science writing for the nonscientist and an exemplary chapter in the history of science, written with integrative intelligence, leavened with deft, humorous biographical characterizations, and punctuated by a series of concluding statements of startling, poetic power.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I give it an solid "A" May 8, 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
As a biochemistry major in grad.school and having done research w/ photosynthesis, the author has done his homework and has a "A" paper(book). The ONLY critique would be that the "next edition" needs to have more visuals aids to go with his step-by-step explanations.
This would make an an A+ book.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All Hail the Chloroplasts! January 6, 2010
Format:Paperback
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QUESTION: Why should anyone want to pay homage to chloroplasts?

ANSWER: Chloroplasts are the specialised structures in which photosynthesis takes place in, for example, plant cells. In the type of photosynthesis that occurs in plants, carbon dioxide and water react in the presence of sunlight to produce life-producing and life-maintaining oxygen.

Thus, this book looks into photosynthesis, one of the miracles of evolution. The author of this book is Oliver Morton, an award-winning science journalist. He is editor of the science publication "Nature." (Morton also has an asteroid named after him.)

This book is divided into three parts:

Part 1: describes how scientists used the analytical tools of the 20TH century to discover the molecular machinery of photosynthesis. (Note that some of the steps of photosynthesis are still not completely understood.)

Part 2: tells how the molecules discovered in (part 1) came to dominate the Earth's chemistry, to reshape its atmosphere, and to drive changes in its climate and habitability.

Part 3: tells what our use of fossil fuels is doing to the carbon cycle (the flow of carbon through the Earth system), and what this affected carbon cycle is doing to the climate. It's also about how our understanding of photosynthesis might help us choose a wiser future. (This is my favourite part.)

The most scientifically technical parts of this book are concentrated towards the beginning. Do you have to read these chapters to understand the rest of the book? Answer: NO. You can skip forward if you desire without losing the thread of the book. There is a handy glossary to help with technical terms if you missed their explanations earlier.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Broadened my view of science
Oliver Morton is not only exceedingly well versed in his topic, he writes lyrically in a way I've never before encountered in science writing. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Greg Reyna
4.0 out of 5 stars What I didn't learn in school ('cause nobody thunk it yet)
I did know that the oxygen liberated in photosynthesis came from water molecules. I didn't know that the basic research in nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry merged with... Read more
Published 6 months ago by gustav zantanon
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book. Highly recommended
I bought this book used and it is in great condition.

If you really want to understand how plant life works and how we figured it all out, this is an awesome book. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Eileen Ryan-Zwiers
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding Our World
This is one of the BEST books I have come across to help anyone understand how our World works, and the importance of that understanding. Read more
Published on September 26, 2011 by Reality Al
5.0 out of 5 stars Five stars, all the way...
I definitely agree with the earlier reviewer, who stated that he couldn't understand how anyone could give this book less than five stars! Read more
Published on August 30, 2011 by David Marks
5.0 out of 5 stars from chloroplast to global warming: the history of green things
popular science tends to be written by one of two types of people. scientists who have decided that telling the world about science is as important as working in their lab and... Read more
Published on August 2, 2010 by R. M. Williams
5.0 out of 5 stars better than five stars
Buy the book because Oliver Morton deserves the royalties, but don't read it - that way I'll look smarter because you won't know when I'm stealing from the book. Read more
Published on June 20, 2010 by Jack Hunt
4.0 out of 5 stars Good history of photosynthesis
The first 1/3rd of this book is an excellent history of photosynthesis. Morton walks us though the personalities, some of the key experiments and explains a little of the... Read more
Published on March 29, 2010 by Donald E. Fulton
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