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King of the Sun

Stuart Clark on science communication and solar storms

Jennifer Rohn 17 June 2007

Breathless: Stuart Clark at Chile's Chajnantor Observatory (16700 feet)

These scientists were capable of extraordinary acts of intelligence yet the pettiest acts of jealousy

Editor’s note: recently caught up with science writer Stuart Clark to find out more about the inspiration behind his new book, The Sun Kings.

Tell us a bit about your scientific background.

I have a degree and a PhD in astrophysics, both from the University of Hertfordshire, where I remain a visiting fellow. Until 2001, I was the University’s Director of Public Astronomy Education. So, as well as teaching undergraduates and postgraduates, I also organized evening classes for the general public. During this time I was researching star formation, planetary habitability and the origins of life.

Why did you decide to leave research to become a full-time writer?

I realized that as soon as I got down into the detail required for research, I lost sight of the big picture and my interest largely evaporated. So it was always hard work. I had self-funded my PhD by writing my first books on astronomy and the video covers for Star Trek (really!). Also, the University had been generous with the amount of part-time teaching they offered me. While sharing an office with a close colleague at the time, I realized that he thought in numbers but I didn’t; only if I could describe something in words, did I feel I understood it. So from that moment, I realized that I was going to struggle in academia. Thankfully, my writing was becoming more and more popular and in 2001, the European Space Agency made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I left academia behind. Now, I work full-time with my wife, Nikki. My aim is to best the best science journalist and writer I can possibly be. To that end, Nikki is essential; she does everything except write. That’s my job. It is idyllic setup – well from my point of view anyway. As well as running the office, Nikki reads everything before it goes out to the editor. She is my secret weapon as my work is just that little bit more polished and allows me to maintain my reputation as a miracle worker. I’ve given the game away, haven’t I?

Your latest book, The Sun Kings, just came out in Britain. How did you first become interested in the story behind the discovery of sunspots?

The Sun Kings, Princeton University Press

The Sun has always been a place of fascination to me. The violence of the solar flares that wrack its surface just blows my mind. It’s a beautiful celestial object to look at through a properly filtered telescope. I was daydreaming about it. I had been taught that solar flares were discovered by Richard Carrington in 1859 – and I deliberately phrase it that way round to emphasis science’s relegation of its practitioners to second place. I began to wonder what Carrington felt when he saw this enormous explosion. So I started digging.

I swiftly discovered that, by sheer chance, Carrington’s flare triggered the largest display of aurorae that the world has ever witnessed. Then I uncovered the rumours of murder and suicide that clouded Carrington’s later life. This came at a time when I had changed literary agents and was seeking a story that I could transform into a narrative history, to take my book writing away from the educational treatments I had been producing.

You have called Carrington's work 'the birth of modern astronomy'. What's the evidence?

We now know that Carrington’s flare ejected a billion tonnes of seething gas from the Sun’s surface and it hit the Earth full on. It triggered not just the enormous aurorae but also the largest magnetic storm in the world’s history. Every compass on Earth went crazy, the telegraph system collapsed with equipment bursting into flames and operators being stunned unconscious by the electrical currents that began to surge along the wires. Yet no one knew what had happened. As I trace in the book, it was from this very moment that astronomers began to concentrate on determining the nature of the celestial objects and therefore their ability to affect the Earth, rather than just charting their positions for navigational purposes. The flare is the tipping point from traditional astronomy into modern astrophysics.

What was the most surprising thing you uncovered during the course of your research for the book?

This is going to sound strange but the most surprising thing I discovered was that these scientists were real people, with strengths and weaknesses, beliefs and fears. They were capable of extraordinary acts of intelligence yet the pettiest acts of jealousy. As I read their works and especially their letters to each other, they became like friends to me. I accepted them and their flaws. I dedicated the book to my wife because I became so obsessed with these Victorians that I neglected everything in my life to get to know these dead gentlemen better. It was a peculiar time.

How did Carrington fit in with all the other great scientific figures of the day, including Darwin?

At the height of his career, Carrington was in the top-most echelons of science, easily on a par with Darwin, until the controversy surrounding The Origin of Species engulfed the naturalist.

Do you ever wish you lived in Victorian times? If you could have dinner with five figures from that era, whom would you choose?

I like to meet my Sun Kings, to see whether the mental picture I have of them is anywhere even remotely close to how they really were. The best place to do this would be to attend one of the dinners that were held before the Royal Astronomical Society meetings during the nineteenth century. That would include people like the Astronomer Royal George Airy, John Herschel, and two of my Sun Kings: Warren de la Rue and Richard Carrington. Or I’d settle for being in the meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society when Carrington described the flare and the subsequent magnetic storm. However, I don’t wish I had lived in Victorian times, I’m very happy to be living in the age of rock music. I couldn’t imagine my life without an electric guitar at my side.

Reviewers have noticed the novelistic style of your writing, in which the historical figures are brought to life. Can you give us a few example of this style from The Sun Kings?

It has been extraordinarily gratifying to read numerous reviews that mention this. It was my agent who should take a lot of the credit for that. He knew that I had written a couple of unpublished novels and he suggested at the beginning of the The Sun Kings, even before the proposal was written, that I should employ the tricks of novel writing to bring the story to life. One of the things I fixed upon was dialogue. I don’t mean interviews and quotes but actual dialogues. So I went searching for instances of recorded speech that I could weave into the narrative. I was lucky to find some verbatim reporting from the trial of William Rodway that mired Carrington in scandal and effectively destroyed his career. There was an eyewitness report of Rodway’s attempt to murder Carrington’s wife, Rosa, from which I could extract a vivid picture of the crime and some actual dialogue:

Rosa stepped out onto the front step and drew the door up behind her. Rodway made circles in the ground with a walking stick. He asked Rosa to return a cloak, a shawl, a small dog and £3 that she owed him. She asked him to wait in the nearby Devil’s Jump Inn and she would have the shawl and cloak brought to him. The dog, however, would have to wait until the return of her husband because Rodway had given the animal to him, not her, shortly after the marriage. Drawing her attention to the dirt that Rodway was stirring up with his stick, he said, “I rose you from that.” Then he turned to leave. Rosa watched him reach the corner of the house and turn around. Striding back he accused her, “You have been a bad woman to me.” and raised him arm as if to strike her. That was when Rosa saw the knife he was holding, its five inches of gleaming blade falling towards her heart.

I also found a brief description of a ship’s crew’s experiences that night, caught between the aurora and a storm. This vignette seemed to perfectly encapsulate the spectacle and the horror of what many were feeling that night, so I chose to open the first chapter with it:

The Southern Cross was 84 days out of Boston, heading for San Francisco, when Captain Benjamin Perkins Howe and the ship’s company sailed into a living hell.

It was 1:30 in the morning and they were in the Pacific off the coast of Chile, fighting a tremendous gale that had been raging all night. Hailstones from above and waves from all around whipped the deck. When the wind-lashed ocean spray fell away to leeward, the men noticed they were sailing in an ocean of blood. Everywhere they looked, the pitching seascape had turned deepest red. Lifting their eyes skyward, they saw the reason. It was obvious, even through the clouds: the heavens were wreathed in an all-encompassing red glow.

The sailors recognised the lights at once. They were the southern aurora, an unexplained phenomenon whose eerie glow usually graced the skies near the Antarctic Circle, just as their northern counterparts clung to the Arctic. To see the southern lights from as far north as temperate-latitude Pacific waters was highly unusual, especially considering the intensity of the display. It should have been a treat but maintaining their faltering control over the ship robbed the crew of the opportunity to appreciate the spectacle.

As the howling maelstrom intensified, they noticed other strange lights, much closer than those of the aurora. They were clinging to the ship itself, creating haloes around the silhouettes of the mastheads and yardarms. These new wraiths were also familiar and just as inexplicable as the aurora. Sailors knew them as St Elmo’s fire. Their usually blue-white light often accompanied ships during extreme thunderstorms, but on this night their pallid glow had been stained the same roseate hue as the heavens above.

Another thing I decided to take from novel writing was to put myself in the role of the protagonists rather than write as a disembodied observer looking back on their state of knowledge with condescension. I had to ‘unlearn’ a lot of what I knew about the Sun, in order to achieve this. That was probably the most amazing facet of writing this book because part way through I truly realized how hard these scientists worked. They knew literally nothing about the Sun at the start of their adventure, yet overturned every piece of myth and speculation to reveal the cornerstones of modern understanding. I came to admire them very much and became determined to bring them to life. There were three on whom I really wanted to concentrate: William Herschel, Richard Carrington and Walter Maunder. Their scientific goals were remarkably similar and could be used as the connecting spirit throughout the book. Having three of them also meant that I could structure the book as a classic three act play, with the first call to action in act one, a gradual rise in intensity before everything appears to fall apart at the close of act two, then finally the subject is elevated to triumph in act three.

Do you think dramatized popular science writing is a fashion that will persist? If so, why?

I hope so because I’m planning to spend much of the rest of my life writing it. There is a quality to science that fascinates the general public but that usually escapes the scientists themselves. There is no mystery about this; it is because the scientists are too closely involved to see the – for want of a better word – glamour of science. Having spent time on the inside, I feel I have a foot in both camps. When you love something, you can’t stop talking about it – just ask Nikki about my endless droning about how great the Canadian rockers Rush are. It’s the same with astronomy, I can’t stop myself writing about it. To face the endless universe and to resolve to understand it is a noble pursuit. That’s human nature at its best.

Any plans for the next popular science book?

I’ve just completed a highly illustrated book about Deep Space for Quercus, which has been a great change of pace for me. It’s coming out in the US at Christmas and throughout the rest of the world in 2008. I have other plans that I’m working through at the moment. I’ll almost certainly be swinging towards cosmology but right now, I’m searching for the right vehicle in which to do that. Watch my website for news!

Does your science writing have an agenda?

Not usually but a few years ago I discovered something I felt so strongly about that I had to blow the lid off. There was a lot of campaigning about how the Sun played no part in global warming. That simply didn’t add up because there was a growing body of evidence that variation in the Sun’s magnetic activity correlated with climate changes in past centuries. I listened with growing horror while anyone who suggested that the Sun played a role was branded a climate denier and vilified. I began to investigate and very quickly discovered that climate scientists were not talking to solar physicists and vice versa. That appalled me and so I began to investigate in earnest. For a time, I did wonder whether the Sun could indeed be responsible for all of global warming. Let me say at this point that, based on what I believe to be impartial scientific evidence, the Sun was surpassed as the driver of global warming in 1970. Nowadays, it can be contributing no more than a third of global warming. I discovered a few intrepid souls who were trying to put this point of view across. Some had even had their work published in Nature, yet whenever climate scientists talked to the media they said that the Sun’s contribution was irrelevant. So I decided to give them a voice and, to my eternal gratitude, New Scientist agreed to be the vehicle. I felt that the climate science community was treating the general public as imbeciles, and I count myself as a member of the general public so I felt that the world’s intelligence was being insulted. I’m currently feeling uneasy about cosmology’s belief in dark matter. What started as a valid hypothesis, many decades ago, has now grown into a façade of certainty that is blocking people’s minds to alternatives. Where’s the scepticism that used to be a prerequisite in science? There have been a few NASA press releases recently claiming to provide unequivocal evidence of dark matter. The evidence is not unequivocal, and, if you look at the reasoning, it is almost circular. Scientists should never believe unproven hypotheses, nor pretend that they have all the answers. People love mysteries and science is much more palatable when a scientists has the honesty to say, “I don’t know, but finding out is what my job is all about.” So if science writing has any agenda at all it is to tell the truth by watching scientists in the same way that political journalists watch politicians. To prick their balloons whenever they become a little over-inflated.

What does science communication mean to you?

These days I have no pretensions about educating the public. All I want to do is entertain them with science. That does not mean I sacrifice scientific accuracy. I often drill down deep into the science before I decide how best to approach the story and how much detail is necessary to tell the story. It’s like a musician who never attempts to play in public at the very limits of his/her ability for fear of not pulling it off. Yet, in the background they are practicing like crazy so that they are constantly improving. I feel that way about writing. I never write at the limits of my own knowledge, in case I am called upon to defend something I have written. Yet behind the scenes I’m endeavouring to learn more and to develop the ability to serve up even the most complex science with an apparent ease. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need to set up the science involved in a pedagogical way. You get into these well-worn furrows and it takes so long to get to what you actually want to talk about that you’ve lost your audience. I think some science communicators are wannabe scientists and so like to take that approach but it doesn’t work for me. I’ve been a research scientist and there is little glamour in it for me. So a lot of what I do is to decide how much I can get away with leaving out.

You mentioned some unpublished novels. Do they involve scientists and/or science? Are you still trying to get them published?

I have always written novels but none has ever been published. Some were sent out and rejected, others I rejected myself. Now, it’s time to change that. So, I have a couple of novel ideas on the go: both about scientists and pivotal moments in scientific history. One I am working on at the moment is astronomy-based; the other is not. The second began as a side-project and has grown into a book that I have to write at some point in my career. Whilst writing The Sun Kings, I realised there were moments when I wanted to dwell a little longer on an event, or to wonder what might have passed between the characters. Because I was writing non-fiction, though, I was extraordinarily careful not to put anything I could not back up with a reference, if challenged. Now, I would like to try dramatizing an event, so that I can bring it more fully to life and hopefully reach a new audience that might not have considered reading about science as a leisure pursuit.

We’ll see.

Related information

The Sun Kings is available on Amazon.