It was ironic to be face-to-face with the radiant orange glow of Steve Jones’ newest title Here Comes the Sun just minutes after standing out in a typical grey October drizzle. Yet blindingly obvious that the title would make me hum in glee to the Beatles despite my sodden shoes and tangled hair.
With a murmur of expectation and a scramble for notebooks from the crowd, Jones’ talk was sure to be more than a promotional pitch. Steve Jones, originally a geneticist, has since diversified his career into broadcasting and the writing of popular science books on topics as wide ranging as evolution, coral reefs and science during the French Revolution.
Despite the two opposing chairs at the front, Jones went on to give a lecture, in absence of the festival’s Literary Director, bringing in humour, culture and a fair dollop of hard science. To kick it off, Jones reminisced on his university days in 1969 – the year of love, freedom and sunshine for the Beatles and hippies. But this wasn’t how Jones remembered it as a student at the University of Edinburgh. For him, the springtime Haar (a type of dense sea fog) would all but confine the sun’s existence to long-term memory. This brought Jones to the question: what effects can the lack of sun have on our health?
We all know that the sun gets a bad rep in the media. We’re constantly told to cover up and put a hat on to avoid skin cancer and wrinkles. As children we’re taught never to look directly at it, like it’s Freddy Krueger’s long lost brother. And, now, in this technological age, most of the light we’re exposed to seems to come from our computer screens. (Admittedly, this isn’t completely the case in Britain, but we seem to have become indoor creatures nonetheless.)
Yet Jones spent much of his time at the lectern trying to save face for our nearest star, summarising a range of potentially complex scientific studies with both wit and clarity. He showed studies linking increases in life expectancy and happiness, and decreases in MS and diabetes with more time spent in sunny climes.
Despite this, up to 50% of the adult population in Britain is vitamin D deficient leading to a recent rise in rickets – a disease many will believe is confined to the Dark Ages. Some solace was provided in his own example of taking daily vitamin D supplements, though. Yet it was hard not to feel that he was pulling the wool over our eyes when he stated that the substance came from sheep’s fleece.
By the time the talk ended, one could have been forgiven for forgetting that this was a book promotion, but there was still palpable excitement at the prospect at his book signing in Waterstones. And, all in all, I learnt to love the sun a little more and, more than anything, wanted to slap Steve Jones’ book straight in my palms.
The Literary Festival continues on the 30th of October with David Owen.