The April showers, those used to be a thing. Not this year. Where I live we’ve had almost uninterrupted blue skies for a month, just 12% of the usual rainfall and the best month yet for my solar panels. Not so good for the raised beds, but a fine time to be reading about sunshine with Linda Geddes’s book Chasing the Sun: The new science of sunlight and how it shapes our bodies and minds.
Having evolved within our specific planetary conditions, “our biology is set up to work in partnership with the sun” says Geddes, a writer with the New Scientist. For aeons humans had no choice about this, orienting our periods of rest and activity with the days and the seasons, and spending most of our time outdoors. Industrial societies have broken that dependency on the sun with artificial light. We have much more choice about the rhythms we live by, and as it transpires, a new freedom to get it wrong.
Chasing the Sun covers circadian rhythms and body clocks, the perils of shift work and jet lag. It looks at how sunlight has been used as a cure for various diseases or deficiencies, either rightly or wrongly. We learn about how sunlight affects healing, depression, near-sightedness, MS or various cancers. There are injustices too – such the right to light when big buildings block out the sky, or getting teenagers to wake up early when their body clocks genuinely don’t align with the adult world.
The book explains the science and introduces key historical figures and their discoveries. There are also a lot of ordinary people and real world examples. Geddes has put in a lot of leg work in tracking down and talking to people with unusual expertise or experiences, or visiting relevant places – including sleep clinics, dark sky reserves, Amish communities, and a Norwegian village in a valley that has mirrors on a mountainside to bring light to the town square in winter.
There’s a lot of practical information in this very accessible guide to sunlight. It could help you to sleep better, or to get through the winter blues. There are plenty of things that society should pay attention to as well, from later start times at high schools to the design of office lighting. Some of these would make a major difference to people’s lives – such as giving children more outdoor time.
For me, our disconnection from the natural rhythms of the sun is symtomatic of our wider predicament. Technology has given us the freedom to overrule nature – not just on light, but on energy and the seasonality of foods, the distance we can travel in a day, and a hundred other examples. Much of this is liberating progress, but the ability to do something doesn’t mean it should be done, and technology can trick us into thinking we know better than nature. There are all kinds of consequences for standing outside of nature, and many benefits to bringing ourselves into better alignment with the planet we call home.
- Chasing the Sun is available from Hive, Amazon UK or Amazon US.
- I have another book called Chasing the Sun – Richard Cohen’s sweeping study of the sun and how it has been portrayed in mythology, language and religion through the ages.
- Or if you’re more interested in the role of the sun in energy, there is Chris Goodall’s The Switch or McKevitt and Ryan’s Solar Revolution.