Monday, July 29, 2019

Extinction Rebellion - This is Not a Drill

The emergence of radical mass movements demanding action on the environment have, given the scale of the crisis, been a much needed sign of hope. The school student strikes which began in late 2018 and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement that uses mass civil disobedience as a tool to force action from the UK government have revitalised the environmental movement. Already they have had some impact. The April 2019 actions that lead to 100s being arrested and the shutting down of central London by mass protest forced the British Parliament to declare a “climate emergency”. More action is planned as declaring an emergency does not automatically mean action will follow.

For someone who has been part of the socialist and environmental movement for almost 30 years it has been an exhilarating few months. The Manchester XR group that I’ve been part of since April 2019 has brought together many activists – though the young people far outnumber veterans like me. But what has been most refreshing is that the majority of those activists see the need for radical action because they blame the system itself.

Extinction Rebellion’s book This is Not a Drill tells the story of XR and the environmental crisis. It is designed to inspire people into action and to put across XR’s ideas in an accessible form. Unlike some radical movements of recent years, XR is not an undifferentiated mass of ideas, its leading figures and key activists share a core ideology and are building a movement around them. So This is Not a Drill is an important read. It tells you about XR and offers a way to get involved.

The opening chapters lay out the scale of the crisis. These chapters are not an easy read. Scientists Professor William Ripple and Nicholas Houtman complain that:
We scientists have been frustrated and even in despair over the many years of inaction, but we will continue to speak out, telling the truth about what we all need to do to protect life on planet Earth. 
They call for “evidence-based solutions to the emerging planetary catastrophe”. Other chapters are by indigenous activists, the President of the Maldives and farmers in India who tell how climate change is destroying their communities. Climate change is not something that is far off, but something that is real for millions of people. Action is needed now.

This is Not a Drill is also a guide to action – it lays out XR’s strategy of mass civil disobedience; it also emphasizes key tactics that its leadership focus on, in particularly mass arrests. The final few pages are a detailed guide to how to organise a blockade, emphasising that doing this requires making sure that the protesters do not alienate those caught up in the demonstrations.

One of the great strengths of the book (and XR in general) is that it understands that ordinary people are not the problem. For instance, in his chapter on the Maldives, the country's former President Mohamed Nasheed argues:
Here’s the thing about climate change: we cannot frame it as a war between working people and saving the planet. If we do that, we will stir up the forces that led to the wave of populism that has engulfed the West, and some of the East too. Let us not forget what we owe to decent, working people such as coalminers. The tremendous wealth the world enjoys today, the technological progress, the huge increase in living standards, is due to the work of the people. We should not blame coalminers, or loggers, or oil-rig workers for causing the climate crisis. Instead we should thank them for helping to fuel human civilisation.
Instead, the book aims its fire at the system itself. It is a system “more concerned with profits and the status quo than with the health of people and the planet”. As Farhana Yamin concludes, “we can and must succeed in catalysing a peaceful revolution to end the era of fossil fuels, nature extraction and capitalism. Life on Earth depends on it”.

The book is less clear on what it is about capitalism that makes it so environmentally destructive – other than putting profits before people and planet. This might seem political nit-picking, but I think it means that the authors are less clear on what the alternative might be. One writer, Kate Raworth, argues that “what we need are economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow.” Later she argues “economic rebels” must “create thriving, regenerative and distributive economies that can meet the needs of all…within the life-supporting systems of… this planet”. These are noble aspirations, but we a more than these generalisations.

In his article, the Labour MP Clive Lewis argues that neo-liberalism is the problem. Now it is important to highlight that XR says it is “beyond politics” and includes contributions from Clive Lewis and Green MP Caroline Lucas to demonstrate the way that some politicians are thinking, not because it endorses them. But I feel that Clive Lewis’ argument is what lies behind some of the writers’ vision of a sustainable world. In effect they are pushing for a greener, more sustainable, more regulated capitalism in which fossil fuels have been driven to the margins. That in itself is a worthy aim – but I’m not sure it’s practical as a solution to the crisis we face.

Capitalism is a system where blocks of capital (firms, companies, corporations) are driven to accumulate wealth because they are in a system of competitive production. It’s thus a system where growth is inevitable, and which can only see the natural world as a source of material for production or a dumping ground for waste. Capitalism cannot operate in any other way – it is wasteful, inefficient and damaging precisely because of its nature. Hopes that a Green New Deal will change that are an illusion, even if it might be a good starting point.

Socialists, in contrast, argue that we must fight for green reforms today – such as the One Million Climate Jobs campaign – but that we also need to use that struggle as a bridge to build a movement to end capitalism and create a new way of organising society. But a society that rationally manages its interaction with nature will be one where production is democratically planned, and which will arise out of the mass movements that overthrow the capitalists. This process will also transform those making the revolution – something I think is essential in transforming our conception of our social relationship with nature. It is the working class – whose labour keeps capitalism functioning – who are the only force capable of making that change.

But these ideas are not a million miles away from the thinking of many XR activists. In his chapter, Roger Hallam, one of XR’s key founders, says that:
The key lesson about all structural political change is that disruption works. Without disruption there is no economic cost, and without economic cost the guys running this world really don’t care. That’s why labour strikes are so effective against companies and why closing down a capital city is so effective against governments.
I’d go further and point out that strikes also change workers’ perceptions of their own power and their understanding of capitalism itself. For this reason, I think Hallam (and XR in general) are wrong when they say that fundamental change can happen with a movement of only a few tens of thousands.  Nor do I believe that the focus on mass arrest is a viable strategy. I think you need the vast majority of ordinary people’s involvement to effect fundamental change – particularly in the face of the wealth and power of the capitalist state. History has shown how any fundamental challenge to the status quo will be met with mass violence and repression.

The involvement of workers in the movement is crucial and so from personal experience I’m really pleased that XR is taking outreach to the trade union movement seriously.

This is Not a Drill has some really important arguments. One of the things that is great about the new movements is that they are full of discussion and debate. XR in particular is a place where people can get involved and contribute whatever they feel they are able to. The debates will have to continue – in particular I think we need to discuss through the type of movement that we need. But I do highly recommend the book. It is an inspiring, if frightening, call to arms. Some of the chapters left me depressed, others cheered me. But it is the product of a living, growing radical movement that everyone should get involved in. Reading This is Not a Drill is a good first step.

Support radical book-selling. Purchase This is Not a Drill from Bookmarks, the Socialist Bookshop.

Readers of this book review may also enjoy a new book I edited System Change not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response to Environmental Crisis.

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Sunday, July 28, 2019

CJ Sansom - Revelation

The adventures of CJ Sansom's Tudor hero Matthew Shardlake continue in Revelation. Unlike several previous books Revelation is not set around a particular event during Henry VIII's reign. Instead it's context is the confusion in the latter part of Henry's kingship as different forces vie for control - in particular different factions representing different aspects of religious ideas. Henry is increasingly moving towards a return to more tradition religious practice, at the same time others are holding out for a continuation of the Reformation. The religious changes over the last decades have left many ordinary people confused and a large minority are pulled by more extreme religious doctrine.

Shardlake moves through this confusing situation as he attempts to solve a gruesome series of murders. The killer appears to be using the apocalyptic biblical book Revelations as a basis for the murders - torturing victims in grim parodies of chapters taken from the book. One of the early murders is of a close friend of Shardlake which leads to him being pulled into a secretive effort to find the killer. He is up against time as the killer must be found before he concludes the murders as laid out in his reading of Revelations and before the King learns of the crimes that would likely lead to instability and panic in London, a city already close to religious violence.

Revelation deals little with wider issues - though in the background is Henry's courting of Catherine Parr. This means the book is much more like a modern detective story, albeit set in Tudor London, than the earlier books. Nonetheless it's a gripping read and, despite being fiction, like CJ Sansom's earlier books it gives the reader many insights into the Reformation and Henry's rule.

Related Reviews

Sansom - Sovereign
Sansom - Dark Fire
Sansom - Dissolution

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Brian Aldiss - Greybeard

*** Warning Spoilers ***

Brian Aldiss' 1964 book Greybeard sits alongside John Wyndam's The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes and John Christopher's The Death of Grass in what might be described as classic English novels about the end of the world portrayed through the collapse of the British state. As we face environmental Armageddon I'm finding such  doom-laden science fiction novels both attractive and terrifying, and Aldiss' book is no exception.

Set years after atomic weapon tests have sterilised all of humanity and most mammals, the book looks at how civilisation has fallen and how humanity has survived. The story follows the eponymous Greybeard as he, with his wife and other friends, travel down the River Thames with the aim of reaching the coast. Having left the relative safety of a small village where they'd lived for decades, we follow the group's adventures which allows Aldiss to tell us how the world is coping as the youngest generation reaches their 50s. In flashback we learn what happened in the aftermath of the last baby being born.

This is where it is interesting for contemporary readers. How will civilisation proceed if we see global environmental breakdown? We are unlikely to live through a gradual breakdown of society. Aldiss' describes how, as fewer and fewer children are alive, the world erupts into global conflict as states try and secure young people as future assets. Greybeard takes part in some of these wars, which are brutal - frequently killing the young who they are trying to capture. As economies collapse (people simply stop working as there is no future) states' breakdown and local dictators arise to control and protect local populations in a gross parody of feudalism. Readers familiar with Wyndam's work will recognise similar themes from the end of his Triffid novel. Eventually plague defeats these dictators and humanity survives in tiny villages, fearing outsiders and growing ever older.

Greybeard is a compelling read. I fear it has a lot to tell us about how climate chaos will likely lead to extremes of violence locally and internationally as states try to maintain their existence, though perhaps it under-estimates even that. The novel itself is well-written and compelling, even though I found the ending a little too positive and predictable.

I read Greybeard alongside the new book by Extinction Rebellion which I'll review shortly. The joint experience didn't leave me feeling particularly positive. But at least we have the chance of stopping environmental disaster through radical, mass political action. But the time is short, and in the real world it is the children who will suffer the most.

Related Reviews

Wyndham - The Kraken Wakes
Christopher - The Death of Grass
Morrow - Is this the Way the World Ends?
Robinson - New York 2140

Friday, July 26, 2019

Paul Lund and Harry Ludlam – Trawlers Go to War

At the outset of World War Two Britain lacked ships capable of meeting the needs of its defence. That the navy lacked aircraft carriers and destroyers is one thing, but it also desperately needed smaller craft that could be used to escort convoys, sweep for mines or hunt submarines. In short order the admiralty took control of many existing fishing vessels – trawlers in particular, but also whalers and smaller craft like herring drifters – both old and ones on the production line. These ships were equipped with outdated, inadequate and in some cases antique weapons and sent out to face a formidable foe.

The new Royal Naval Patrol Service, based out of the “Sparrow’s Nest” in Lowestoft, was undermanned, undergunned and extremely brave. Many of the men who crewed the craft were not full time naval ratings, but former fishers and other crew who were commissioned into the force. Rules and regulations were not quite the same as the navy, and the RNPS soon developed a reputation for brashness and bravery. The men, and ships, acquitted themselves well in all areas of the war at sea from 1939 – 1945.

This excellent social history is based on many deeply personal accounts by participants, one of whom, Paul Lund, is co-author. The stories range from the humourous (there’s lots of black humour) to the shocking. They cover the conditions at sea, the inadequate food and the heavy drinking that crews did to cope as well as the long, dangerous and difficult voyages in appalling sea conditions. But all these are the backdrop to the violence of the conflict.

Under-equipped and often years out of date the ships did an amazing job looking for mines or in an escort role. More amazingly they tackled appalling conditions as part of convoys to Iceland or Murmansk in the Soviet Union and they were at Dunkirk, D-Day and Malta.

But because this is oral history the reader never forgets that these ships were crewed by ordinary men in extraordinary times. While reading the accounts of the RNPS during the invasion of Norway it occurred to me how many of the unlikely WW2 films that proliferated in the 1960s were actually remarkably accurate when it came to individual bravery (and some of the accounts in this book rival films like The Guns of Navarone for daring do). The infamous story of the “small ships” at Dunkirk may well have grown in the telling as a propaganda story, but that does not negate the fact that many small-ships brought off hundreds of men from the Dunkirk beaches. One trawler carrying around 1000 troops back to Britain in what must have been shocking circumstances.

For those interested in the experience of ordinary people during World War Two this is a highly recommended, readable account of a forgetting part of the conflict. There are occasional hints that this was not just an experience of the British – at least one trawler is captured from Germany towards the end of the war. But given Britain’s maritime history it is quite unique to the country for which the sea was both saviour and barrier to its participation in the conflict.

Over 400 ships of the RNPS were lost in the conflict – 2,385 men were lost at sea and have their names on the Lowestoft memorial dedicated to them. This little history puts their stories, and those of the survivors, at the heart of the history of the RNPS and reminds us that wars are always fought by ordinary people.

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Lund & Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell
Monsarrat - Three Corvettes
Monsarrat - The Cruel Sea
Terkel - The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Mick Reed & Roger Wells – Class, Conflict & Protest in the English Countryside 1700-1880

The early 1980s saw intense debates among scholars studying rural social history in England. This volume brings together some of the key articles from these debates, which while frequently intense and polemical were always insightful. For non-specialists, the key debates might seem somewhat esoteric – they focus on the nature of social protest and the different contexts in which protest took place. But these debates are of more than specialist interest as they are really about how people protest. I was often reminded, while reading these essays, of Marx and Engels’ dictum that class struggle is sometimes visible and at other times hidden. Protest is not always the highly visible struggle of strikes, riots and insurrection.

The book is framed by two essays that put forward a study of contemporary rural studies. In the opening essay by Mick Reed, he argues that rural history has been limited by mistaken framing of key concepts. He also shows how, in the period covered, the traditional social relations in the rural village were breaking down. A transition from a more collaborative economy (and there are some fascinating examples of cashless economies) to ones were capital (and capitalism) dominated. This is not to say there wasn’t class struggle – far from it, but Reed argues that class itself is complicated, so class struggle is more complex:
Class is not about opposition and antagonism – and of course, power. But there are no simple lines of cleavage that can separate classes into opposing and antagonistic camps.
Here Reed is getting to the heart of the debate that is developed in the essays. I don't agree 100 percent here, because there are simple lines of cleavage between classes – that’s their relationship to the means of production - which is what leads to class struggle. But Reed is correct in that in the period discussed some of these relationships are being crystallised out and so class struggle itself can be much more complex than relations in rural situations than in urban areas or industrial environments in the period considered. As the essays in this volume that deal with the Captain Swing insurrections of 1831 show some farmers (who were a capitalist employing class) sided with the mass of the rural labourers, because they shared some interests (eg the abolition of tithes).

The opening essay by Roger AE Wells (1979) generated much of the debate that followed. Wells argues that “covert” protest, by which ne and other historians meant protest done under cover of anonymity – threatening letters, arson - not hidden protests that might not be recorded (mumbling in pubs, or brief work stoppages) – was the principle form of protest between 1700 and 1850. This was not, he emphasises, “political radicalism” in the sense of Chartism, but rather ongoing struggle against the reality of agriculture work and the changes to farming – such as the changes to traditional employment terms.

Andrew Charlesworth responds (1980) by arguing that Wells “neglected the social component of that process: the changes in the daily lives of the agriculture labourers that emphasised for them their new condition as a proletariat, as a group separate from the employers.” He emphasises the importance of the “open” village, free of landlord control and containing much more diverse groupings of labourers and small artisans separate from the “patriarchal web of control of the farmhouse and the ‘close’ village.” Thus, for Charlesworth, the explosion in collective struggle by labourers as a class was far more important than incidents such as “threatening letters and arson” and represented “overt, direct collective action”.

It is tempting here to follow Charlesworth over Wells, if only because collective action such as strikes clearly left much more of a mark on the rural proletariat even if they didn’t leave quite so much fear in the minds of the landowners and farmers. But Charlesworth ignores the point that Marx and Engels makes – not all class struggle is overt. I tend to agree more with J.E. Archer’s point when he argues that Charlesworth and Wells don’t actually agree with each other on what makes up “covert protest”. He is right to highlight that “Well’s conception of social protest is somewhat broader than Charlesworth’s”. Indeed, he continues by pointing out that much covert and overt struggle (defined loosely as arson and strikes) did tend to co-exist even if one dominated. Archer writes:
Labourers and rural working-class communities appear to have been quite selective in their choice of tactics when furthering a dispute. For example, disputes over charity rights and enclosures usually produced mass meetings and demonstrations in the full light of day and in full view of the police…. Examples… show how overt protest existed alongside covert unrest... In 1844 a year renowned for incendiarism, the village of Snettisham (Norfolk) experienced a serious enclosure dispute. Arson was not employed by the protesters, but instead, they took to felling a large number of trees on the disputed land despite the presence of a large body of heavily armed police.
A further essay by Dennis Mills and Brian Short, undermines Wells’ reliance on the “open-closed” model of the countryside to model locations and types of struggle. These two authors point out that Wells’ own research is highly restrictive to a single parish (Burwash, Sussex). In discussing the nature of protest they uncover some fascinating examples of collective action in agricultural communities – eg the mass leaving of workers at the same time at ends of contracts to punish a bad employer. These lead Mills and Short to argue:
Conflict extends beyond the category of protest success and failure are not to be measured I a schematic way; existence within the social formation of groups other capital and labour allows the possibility of alliances between different groups on specific issues and the mediation of class and power relations by these groups.
In other words, class struggle is much more dynamic and complex than many of the authors suggest – even in, for instance, one closed village “below the surface of the ‘necessarily subservient village there was resistance by an ‘underground’, and almost all men were poachers, whose motivation, amongst other things, was ‘to get even with squires and games laws as well as with ‘Church and State’.  They continue “equally important, conflict occurred within employer’ worker relationships in both open’ and ‘closed’ villages.”

What to conclude from these debates? Firstly, it is clear that simplistic models that assume particular social relationships based on ownership of land (closed versus open villages) do not hold up to scrutiny. Secondly, class struggle and protest is far more diverse than a simple dichotomy of arson or strikes. Thirdly, the particular nature of relations in the English countryside could lead to dynamic alliances between different classes. Finally, the development of class consciousness amongst the rural working class meant that struggle took many forms, but just as with the urban workers, it was near constant. Outbreaks of overt (or covert) struggle might make the headlines, but represented a peak in struggle rather than its appearance out of nowhere.

It is interesting to see all these essays together. Roger Wells’ final, lengthy, essay brings together many different aspects of rural protest, but what I got most from was the interaction between the different authors which might not have been quite so illuminating if only reading them as individual papers in different journals. This book is likely however, to remain a specialist one for students of rural protest, which is a shame as there is much of interest for those trying to understand how, why and when workers fought and the forgotten history of resistance.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Emma Davis - A Rebel's Guide to Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai was one of the most fascinating and inspiring revolutionaries of the 20th century, yet today she is almost unknown. So it is marvellous that the latest in the excellent Rebel's Guide series is a short introduction to Kollontai's life and politics.

Born into the "progressive" aristocracy in Russia in 1872 she was unorthodox from a young age. She recalled she "criticised the injustice of adults and I experienced as a blatant contradiction the fact that everything was offered to me whereas so much was denied to the other children". Sent to Paris by her family who hoped it would distract her from an unsuitable marriage to an engineer, she discovered the works of Marx and Engels and began a lifelong commitment to revolutionary organising.

Key to Kollontai's life was the Russian Revolution and the politics of Lenin's Bolsheviks who led the workers to victory in 1917. Emma Davis describes who Kollontai's life was intertwined, even when living in exile, with these revolutionary politics. In particular Kollontai was one of the few who resolutely opposed World War One. Her 1915 pamphlet Who Needs War? was printed in millions of copies to agitate among workers and soldiers against the conflict.

But the most important aspect of Kollontai's activism and writing was her work on women's liberation and her development of ideas linking sex and society. Kollontai was a radical part of the women's liberation movement, but because she insisted that this movement had to recognise the class nature of women's oppression she was frequently at odds with the movement's middle class dominated leadership. This understanding of class also shaped how she understood sex. Following Marx and Engels she saw "bourgeois love" as arising out of the alienating nature of life under capitalism, and that relationships were both a solace and source of confrontation for workers. Davis quotes Kollontai:
Man experiences this 'loneliness' even in towns full of shouting, noise and people, even n a crowd of close friends and work-mates. because of their loneliness men are apt to cling in a predatory and unhealthy way to illusions about finding a 'soul mate; from among the members of the opposite sex.
But even attempts to challenge this through "experimental relationships" were doomed under capitalism, because as Davis explains, Kollontai thought
women were still subject to double standards. Men had a certain freedom to act without moral judgement from society; women did not. So Kollontai was scathing of those middle class proponents of 'free marriage' or 'free love' (having sexual relationships without the ties of marriage or partnership_ in the her and now who didn't recognise the inequalities of class and gender.
Women were at the forefront of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Kollontai, who by then was on the leadership of the Bolsheviks, became responsible for advancing women's liberation inside the new society. Revolutionary newspapers aimed at women were produced and Kollontai drove forward attempts to collectivise the production of food and childcare. She, alongside Lenin, challenged the fears of some that this was about the state taking away children, showing that this was about freeing women from the primary burden of childcare and reproducing the family. It is perhaps these sections of the book that are most inspiring as we learn about radical attempts to transform society, in the midst of appalling counter-revolution and civil war. Davis explains:
In her role of Commissar of Social Welfare Kollontai helped to write the groundbreaking decrees that opened the way for liberation. Hereditary laws were abolished, as was the authority of men in the family. Divorce was legalised and the distinction between 'legitimate; and 'illegitimate;' children was removed. Marriage ceremonies were simplified so any man of 18 and woman of 16 could marry through a short civil ceremony. Kollontai and Dybenko were the first couple married under the new law.
Given how backward pre-Revolutionary Russia was, these were amazing transformations. But the rise of Stalin and the isolation of Russia meant that these victories were rolled back. Sadly, as Davis shows, Kollontai was unable to break completely from Stalin and ended up in the 1940s praising his celebration of motherhood and traditional women's roles. But as Davis stresses, the key thing to remember about Kollontai was her revolutionary activism and organising in the run up to and during the Russian Revolution. As Davis says, "Kollontai's writings on sexual liberation point towards a world where people's relations... are free from the obligations of economic necessity."

This Rebel's Guide is an excellent introduction to Kollontai's life and politics. I highly recommend it and hope that Emma Davis' book leads to many more activists and revolutionaries learning from and developing Kollontai's revolutionary socialism.

Related Reviews

Porter - Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography

Prasad - A Rebel's Guide to Martin Luther King
Hamilton - A Rebel's Guide to Malcolm X
Mitchell - A Rebel's Guide to James Connolly
Brown - A Rebel's Guide to Eleanor Marx
Campbell - A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg
Orr - Sexism and the System; A Rebel's Guide to Women's Liberation
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Bambery - A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin
Gonzalez - A Rebel's Guide to Marx

Monday, July 08, 2019

Adrian Tchaikovsky - Walking to Aldebaran

You know that thing when, as a child, you wanted something so very badly that it hurt? But when you got it, it wasn't what you wanted to have at all? Well Gary Rendell, the British astronaut at the heart of Adrian Tchaikovsky's short novel Walking to Aldebaran really really wanted to go to space. He was lucky enough to have his dream come true, when an alien artefact is found far out in the solar system. When a robot probe investigates it is found to defy several laws of physics, and so a multi-nation human mission is sent to explore it. 

The artefact, nicknamed after the frog it resembles, turns out to defy any attempt at understanding - physical laws, time and motion all seem to break down in unpredictable and inexplicable ways. Gary finds himself a loan survivor of the exploratory team, and stumbles around the frog in an attempt to get home. In doing so he discovers various weird, wacky, dangerous and insane aliens and puzzles. While Tchaikovsky is brilliant at describing the aliens that survive in the artefact, the book's real wonder for the reader is what the artefact is. Is it an abandoned alien portal? Is it a dead space-ship? Is it something else entirely while the species exploring it are doing little more than a hedgehog might using a tunnel under a motorway? 

There are many reasons I loved this book. Firstly it's really tense and creepy. Secondly I love novels of first contact, space archaeology and science-fiction twists. But I also liked how Tchaikovsky made all the characters real and balanced the contemporary story of Gary in the artefact with the story of how he got there. I loved the idea that the multi-national crew all learnt Danish as part of a rebellion against their bosses back on Earth - the author's description of the crew and their interactions was done brilliantly.

While the basic concept of the book might not be that original, this is an excellent twist on the tale that packs more into it then many 500 plus page novels.

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Monday, July 01, 2019

Lucie Green - 15 Million Degrees: A Journey to the Centre of the Sun

Despite being interested in astronomy for decades I have, like many other amateur astronomers, neglected my studies of the Sun. In part, as the author of this excellent guide to our nearest star makes clear, this is because looking at the Sun is both dangerous and difficult without specialist equipment. But I think a bigger issue is that I don't think I really understood what a wonderfully complex and fascinating body the Sun is.

Lucie Green is a longstanding solar scientist. She is also a well known broadcaster and an excellent communicator of complex scientific ideas. This latter point is important because to understand the Sun requires some getting to grips with some fundamental physics and the concepts are not always easy to understand. So the opening chapter begins with an account of the development of our understanding of electromagnetism - we need to know this because it helps us understand the information we are receiving from the Sun via the light we receive (both visible and other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum). Knowing this helps us understand what's going on inside the Sun. Green then takes us through the history of studies of the Sun and shows how we have built on several centuries of observations and science.

This is science on a massive scale. The Sun itself is big - even just on the scale of what we can see. But the Sun's outer atmosphere (invisible to human senses) extends beyond the Earth itself, and the influence of the Sun, in terms of the solar wind, extends a very long way indeed beyond the outermost planet. I recently enjoyed Jim Bell's account of the Voyager missions The Interstellar Age, and Green explains just why the ongoing science obtained from those two ageing craft is so important. But the Sun is also huge in terms of the energy it produces and the length of time it has been doing this for. Even with my own knowledge of nuclear physics and astronomy I was still fascinated by Green's account of the Sun's formation and the fusion in its core. We are, Green explains, fortunate that our modern scientific era, and especially the space age have coincided with a particularly fascinating era of the Sun's cycles. But we have been, since around 1985 observing the Sun leaving it's "Grand Maximum State" and the Sun is likely to become relatively dimmer in coming decades. Here Green explains precisely why, contrary to the heartfelt beliefs of various commentators on climate change science, this will have no serious impact on global temperatures. One thing that becomes very clear is just how many of the processes that we observe are the result of complex magnetic interactions throughout the different layers of the Sun - I was quite amazed to find out that we have managed to observe the magnetism of other stars, though disappointed not to be told more about how! Despite Green's ability to communicate complex ideas I did struggle to follow some of the descriptions of what was taking place - my advice to other readers is not to worry too much if you can't understand all the detail - the big picture is very much the key issue.

One of the great things about the book is the way that Green links the Sun to our own lives and society. She shows how the Sun is responsible for life (and civilisation) but also the threats it can have to modern technology and society. The end of the book discusses the uniqueness of our Sun, when compared to the billions of other stars. Lucie Green concludes that while the Sun is not that unique in astronomical terms, it is in the sense that it is the one that we can study and that gave rise to life here. So I recommend 15 Million Degrees very much, not just because it's fascinating science, but also because it's subject, the Sun, is part and parcel of our life on this planet.

Related Reviews

Winterburn - The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy
Bell - The Interstellar Age
Clegg - Gravity: Why What Goes Up, Must Come Down
Holmes - The Age of Wonder