They say a great painting shows you an ordinary scene a pasture you pass on your way to work every day, for instance and suddenly makes you see it as if for the first time. Michael Sims' Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination shows us something we've seen thousands of times: one day in the life of planet Earth. Starting at dawn and proceeding through morning, afternoon, twilight and the witching hours of night, Sims writes in often poetic detail about the natural phenomena that shape our days: the sun, the Moon, atmospheric particles that absorb and reflect light, and so on.
Sims' inquiries into the alternating dance of light and dark that plays upon our heavens reflects his wide range of interests and formidable reading schedule, as previously demonstrated in Adam's Navel and Darwin's Orchestra. One moment, he's quoting Charles Darwin, then next Vladimir Nabokov. While teaching his readers about the sun, clouds, contrails, rainbows, the rotation of the Earth and Moon, Sims veers freely from science to mythology, from the discoveries of cavemen to the speculations of science fiction. The myth he loves most is that of Phaethon, the teenage son of sun god Apollo. Phaethon is famous as the boy whose outsized ambitions far outstripped his abilities. Anxious to prove himself Apollo's true heir, he insists on driving the horse-powered sun chariot despite Apollo's strong misgivings. When the immortal wild horses prove far too unruly for Phaethon's limited charioting skills, he endangers not only himself but also the entire planet. Sims' beautiful retelling of the Phaethon story forms a bass note which ties the various themes of Apollo's Fire together. The story of Phaethon usefully binds a modern scientific understanding of our days to the intuited poetic understanding of ancient writers. Although hydrogen and helium do exist and Apollo and his chariot do not, Sims writes, it is beginning to look as if mythology has not overstated the sun's importance neither its generosity nor its tantrums. The scientific evidence indicates that the sun's royal position in the mythological hierarchy makes perfect sense.