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Book about solar energy from 1962

by Eva Amsen

In the summer after I graduated high school, my chemistry teacher dropped off two heavy boxes of old chemistry books from his PhD days that he was getting rid of.One of the books was a 1962 book about solar energy.

I was the only one of his students who was going to study chemistry, so he thought I might appreciate the books. The boxes sat at the bottom of a closet for a while, and then moved to the attic. The books were pretty cool mostly because they were old, not particularly for the outdated chemistry. He had studied inorganic chemistry, which was my least favourite of the chemistries, so I had no real use for a detailed literature on the subject. I ended up regifting a lot of the books to a university friend who loved old books.

I kept some of the books, though, and one of them has moved to Canada and England with me. It’s a pocket book about the sun, translated from German, and printed in 1962. Titled “The Sun: Energy Source of the Future”, and written by Hans Rau, it’s part of a series of popular science books that Elsevier published at the time. The series also includes “The Moon, Our Loyal Guard”, “The Role of Coincidence and Fate in our Lives”, “The Future Revealed”, and “What Does Your Dream Mean?”* Oh, the sixties…

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The sun book is extremely optimistic about solar power, and mentions in the introduction that by the 21st century, solar energy would be the main source of energy for all “six billion” people on Earth. The actual population of the planet at this moment is over seven billion, and we’re only at the start of the 21st century.

It’s strange reading predictions about a future that is currently in the past. The book optimistically predicts that by the year 1985, we’d have implemented the desalting of sea water to the extent that coastal deserts would have been converted to oases, which would then lead to increased quality of living for overpopulated countries. Solar and nuclear power would be the main sources of energy, and the second half of the 20th century would bring world peace.

Oh, wow. Aww.

It’s not all optimism about the future. The book – which covers research from the 1950s – also mentions global warming! They knew about man-made climate change, the role of CO2, and the risk of rising sea levels back then! I think I was vaguely aware of that, because I’ve read elsewhere that Al Gore first heard about it in university in the sixties, but it was still surreal to see it in a book that otherwise seems so outdated.

Despite the unbridled optimism of the sixties, the book made me realise that we have done depressingly little in the past sixty years: there are still people who disagree with decades-old evidence that shows man-made climate change, and we haven’t achieved the world peace that we should have reached by 1985.**

I did learn something new and non-depressing from the book as well: There was a mention about  Maria Telkes, who had invented a solar-powered stove, which she demonstrated at an outdoor lunch-party in New York. I looked her up online, and she seems awesome. Why haven’t I heard of her before? I wonder what else is hiding in old science books…


*All titles translated from the list of Dutch titles at the front of the book. I don’t know if any are available in English.

** To be fair, the cold war ended within a few years of this date. The problem is just that we keep starting new wars.


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