There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Scientific writing has assumed forms as diverse as a treatise by Aristotle and a poem by Lucretius, and writings on the history of science are just as varied. For his part, author Michael Sims makes his new book, Apollo’s Fire, a kind of meditation—an assortment of ideas scientific, historical, and literary that orbit the topic of a day on Earth. This free-associative gallimaufry has chapters on dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, dusk, and night; the structure is a bit artificial, though without it, the book borders on incoherent. How else could the same volume contain thoughts on Newton’s experiments with optics, Mrs. Dalloway, Aztec mythology, Luke Howard’s early 19th-century classification of clouds, Galileo’s prose, The Phantom Tollbooth, Pliny the Elder’s theory of shadows, and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s view of Earth from space? Light, the day, and the sky are Sims’ thematic hooks, and he exhibits a collector’s fascination with historical detail and etymology: Ruminating on the cosmos, he mentions Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka: A Prose Poem, which conjured up “the vast age and expanse of the universe,” long before this was commonplace, and he notes an arcane connection between an annular eclipse and the term for the ring finger in medieval Latin. Sims also ponders circadian rhythms and, less successfully, weaves throughout the book the myth of Phaeton, who begged his father Apollo to let him drive the sun’s chariot across the sky, lost control, and was hurled to his death. Better is Sims’ discussion of the natural world and the environment, particularly his writing on chlorofluorocarbons, air pollution, and acid rain. He mentions Thomas Midgley, who invented Freon in the late 1930s and who also came upon the utility of lead in automobile gasoline—two discoveries that made Midgley, as Sims quotes an environmental historian, the man who “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth history.” Sims also observes that King Edward I in 13th-century England passed the first environmental law, which “prohibited London merchants from burning coal while Parliament was in session.” The study of air pollution in England that follows culminates with a discussion of London’s killer smog of 1952, which left 4,000 people dead and led to the Clean Air Bill. Sims decries the shortsighted opposition of business to environmental repair and illustrates the human cost with a literary flair, elegantly attaching his discussion to the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland: Hatters were often mad, Sims notes, because for “generations hat-makers used mercury to treat fabric used in their work.” It’s somewhat disappointing that Sims doesn’t employ his impressive erudition to tackle global warming, but he could doubtless fashion another entire book from that subject alone.