8 June, 2015Issue 28.4Science

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Here Comes the Sun

Kanta Dihal

The Burning Answer: A User’s Guide to the Solar Revolution
Keith Barnham
400 pages
ISBN: 9780297869634


Sustainable energy has taken its time in finally becoming acknowledged as an important topic in the public sphere. Science popularizations can be thanked for the lion’s share of this achievement: from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (both the film and the book), those with a message about the environment have found their most influential arguments in the presentation of scientific data. This makes it all the more surprising that very little is actually known about the science behind the various forms of sustainable energy. Whereas most people have some idea of how windmills work, the scientific concepts that make solar energy possible are a mystery to many. Physicist Keith Barnham’s The Burning Answer could not have been timelier, as it is a work which is science popularization and sustainability pamphlet in one. Finally, a book explains not only why we need solar power, but also how it actually works, from the quantum mechanical foundations upwards.

Whereas countless science popularizations have overt political motivations, often reducible to the phrase “fund us,” few popular science works are as overtly political as The Burning Answer. Barnham’s science is thorough and less flashy than in many comparable books, but ultimately any scientific explanation is clearly subordinate to the political message, a message similar to that of Al Gore. He frames his manifesto as a clear and simple good-versus-evil story, on multiple levels. E=mc¬≤ is evil, because it has led to nuclear bombs and nuclear power, both of which produce waste which we do not know how to handle. E=hf is good, because this is the formula which had led to the quantum revolution. Plutonium is evil, neutrons are villains; photons, of course, are heroes. Barnham’s argument is that we should harness the power of these heroic photons and use the sun as our sole resource for energy. Having researched photovoltaics and invented a solar cell of record-breaking efficiency, Barnham presents his argument convincingly and informatively.

The explanation of the science behind this argument is impressively lucid, even to those who are not at all familiar with quantum mechanics. Like most popularizers, he actively avoids the use of all equations but two: the previously mentioned E=mc¬≤ and E=hf. This makes his work exactly twice as equation-dense as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, yet it is also about twice as comprehensible. His explanation of Maxwell’s equations, a topic not often touched upon in popular science books, is wonderfully simple. Rather than writing a bulky paragraph to express the content of the equations verbally—a solution often unsuccessfully opted for in popularizations—he uses words but retains the original mathematical forms of the equations. The reader might be familiar with this method, Barnham explains, from Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield: “Plus sixpence = Happiness. Minus sixpence = Misery.”

Particularly commendable is Barnham’s effort to start at the quantum mechanical origins of solar power, to which the first third of the book is dedicated. As he states early on, books that explain quantum ideas usually “describe esoteric features like the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat rather than how silicon chips work.” Barnham is one of the very few authors who goes beyond mentioning that quantum mechanics has led to very useful applications such as silicon chips, and gets down to actually explaining how they function. For this alone, his work is a fruitful addition to the science popularization genre. One aspect which could have made the book even better as a popularization would have been to include illustrations. The Burning Answer does not contain any, which is a big loss. Many of Barnham’s explanations, such as the definition of a tetrahedron, could have been much simplified through the insertion of an image.

However, at times Barnham’s simplifications grow too bold. The sun does not actually burn, of course. It is powered by nuclear fusion, whereas burning is a process in which oxygen is consumed. This particular wordplay may seem innocent, but it is one example of the multiple instances in which it is unclear to what extent Barnham is attempting to stick with the commonly accepted scientific terminology. He has a tendency to extrapolate where this supports his argument. Hydropower is a form of solar power, he claims, because the sun causes water to evaporate and rain down in other places, thus creating streams. The same argument is made for wind power. Is this really a helpful extrapolation to make of solar power in a book that criticises the use of fossil fuels? After all, oil, gas and coal are made of plants, which directly used sunlight…

Barnham’s scientific explanations are a lot better than his historical contextualisation of the quantum revolution, for which a reader might better refer to Helge Kragh’s Quantum Generations instead. Barnham manages to attribute the German, Austrian, and Danish nationalities to Max Planck within five pages. (Planck was born in Kiel, in northern Germany.) He also comes up with the creative spelling “Neils Bohr,” which, unfortunately, is a surprisingly common misspelling of Niels Bohr’s first name. The worst omission, however, occurs in his discussion of Einstein’s Nobel Prize. Barnham does not once touch upon the fact that Einstein was not awarded the Prize because relativity was considered an unacceptable, “Jewish” form of science, and instead only celebrates the insightfulness of the Nobel committee for awarding Einstein the prize for his work on the photo-electric effect.

Barnham makes a substantial mistake in presenting very few achievable objectives for the average reader. The “User’s Guide” part of the title must be taken with a grain of salt or a lot of money. One almost gets the impression that he envisages his entire readership to consist of wealthy, childless, middle-aged couples. The chapter “How Can We Reduce Our Carbon Emissions?” consists almost entirely of extremely expensive solutions: installing solar panels on your roof will cost “between ¬£4,950 and ¬£6,870 including installation,” a heat pump can be bought for prices “starting at ¬£6,000 for heating a detached house,” and the price of installing “smart windows” is not even mentioned. Barnham even goes so far as to repeatedly express his annoyance at the fact that “European PV manufacturers are under pressure from cheap Chinese imports,” whereas earlier on he assured the budget-conscious reader that an increase in demand would cause prices to drop. In the chapter on electric cars, his attitude is even more painful, as he explains that charging an electric car with rooftop PVs is practical “for a two-car household” or “for a one-car household where the breadwinners work at home.” As these examples suggest, Barnham hardly seems concerned with the simple solution of cutting our electricity, power, or fuel use. Only once does he mention that one might actually also just cycle instead of travelling by car.

The suggestions Barnham makes for collective change, through politics, are a lot more convincing than these suggestions for individuals. His strongest argument is that solar power has proven to function successfully in other European countries. Germany is most often presented as the example the UK should follow, as he finds that the environmental conditions in both countries are similar enough. Solar power has proven very successful in a 2006 German experiment, so it should be at least as successful in the UK. Surprisingly enough, Barnham hardly touches upon the fact that the UK can draw much more power from the wind than Germany, due to its coastlines. In terms of the current political situation, however, it is uncertain whether this comparison benefits Barnham’s argument. At the end of his book, he includes an open letter to Labour and the Lib Dems, “to commend to you a policy for the next election, which, according to the opinion polls, a large majority of the electorate would favour.” Unfortunately, he did not include a letter to the Eurosceptic parties, parties which were favoured by the electorate at the recent election.

One wonders whether this book would be able to convince the average gas-guzzler who simply opts for the easiest and/or the cheapest way of living. However, Barnham’s book presents helpful insights and background knowledge for those who have been trying to understand living sustainably and have been doubting whether we in rainy Britain would be able to profit enough from solar power. Barnham shows that even nuclear power, which is currently often hailed as a “clean” form of energy, may not be necessary because much better forms of harnessing energy will be able to work for us. The Burning Answer may help to inspire the political movement necessary to create this change, although the individual reader may not find enough help for personal incentives in this book.

Kanta Dihal is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.