Physicist and writer John Perlin is the author of Let it Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy. Lester Brown, the president of the Earth Policy Institute, has called the book “the solar bible.” In his introduction to the book, Amory Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, notes that “Let it Shine shows how today’s renewable revolution builds on the tenacious efforts of countless generations of innovators whose vision we may finally be privileged enough to bring to full flower.”
Perlin currently works from the Physics department at UC Santa Barbara. In a Green Technology interview, he describes the path he took to unearth a forgotten history.
Note: Perlin will be among the speakers in the concurrent education program at the upcoming Green California Schools and Community Colleges Summit.
What is your current role at UC Santa Barbara?
My current position at UC Santa Barbara is consulting on solar installations. This goes back to the screening of the film The Power of the Sun, for which I wrote the screenplay, at the arts and lectures hall at the university. That inspired a number of people at Student Affairs to solarize their eleven buildings, which were the first solar-powered buildings on the campus. They weren’t sure how to go about it so they hired me.
You’ve written several books on environmental subjects. How did you come to focus on that area?
It may sound strange but I was in Jerusalem, riding on a bus. It was raining and there was red soil all around. I said to myself, “I'm going to be an author.” I had been living in Israel for a number of years and I decided that if I was going to be an author, I had to come back to the U.S. because English is my best language.
My first little book a solar energy factsheet, was written forty years ago. I wrote it because Exxon was arguing that they had to build a processing plant in the Santa Barbara hills because the only way we could get energy is through fossil fuels. There was something in me that questioned that, so I went to the library for about a half year and taught myself everything about solar energy.
I took what I had learned and testified to the board of supervisors. There was a person present from a leading radio station who really liked what I had to say. He said, “Well, John Perlin, if you put this down in a little book, we will give you all the airtime possible.”
I wrote the book and he made good on his promise. I sold about a hundred books or something like that. Next, I showed it to the head librarian at the public library and he really liked it. He said I should it to an alternative library journal and if they liked it, I would get orders from all over the world. I sent it, they liked and I got thousands of orders from everywhere.
That got me to a solar conference where someone said, “You guys think this solar stuff is all new but our grandparents in Southern California had solar water heaters.”
I thought, “Wow. In this day and age of information overload, you don't usually get to do something that nobody else ever heard about.” That's how my solar history career began. That was about 1976.
What was the path to your next book on the subject?
I was looking up the solar water heating industry in Santa Barbara, and several people said I should talk to a particular architect. I looked him up and he said, “If you think this is old, I remember in my architectural student days, there was an article about solar water heating the baths in ancient Rome.” I went to the classics department and asked around. They told me there was a whole multi-volume work on the excavations at Olympus, a big Greek city, right after Socrates' time.
According to this reference, building was all done with the sun in mind to keep the buildings warm in winter and cool in the summer. Next I began to work with a professor in the classics department. He began translating from sources in Greek, and suddenly we were doing pioneering work on solar energy use in antiquity. This was around 1979.
We discovered that all the famous Greek writers wrote about this subject. Socrates gave a big lecture on how to build with solar. Aristotle wrote about it. Aeschylus, the famous playwright, wrote about it. It was just everywhere. Equally interesting was the fact that archaeological digs found that every house was properly oriented to catch the sun during wintertime but avoid it during the hotter months.
It amazes me that all the people that we look to for our ideas on Greek civilization wrote extensively on the value of using solar as a heat source for buildings in the wintertime.
All these solar discoveries were staring right at people's eyes and no one had ever looked at them. For example, the famous art historian, John Ruskin, had translated Xenophon’s transcriptions of dialogues by Socrates. He just passed right through a whole dialogue saying that the Socratic ideal was something that was both pleasant and useful. What is more pleasant and useful, said Socrates, than a house that's warm in winter and cool in summer. How do we achieve that? We achieve that by properly orienting the building, properly placing the rooms, and properly creating shade structures to avoid the sun during the warmer months.”
These things that you're mentioning don't quite get us back six thousand years. How did you begin to realize that there were things even earlier?
In the nineties, I was very interested in writing a new edition of the first book A Golden Thread: 2500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology. I was then in the physics department and some post-docs from China came through. I asked them, “Did China ever do anything in solar energy?” They looked at me like I was a complete barbarian idiot.
Their wives—who also had PhDs and were fluent in English and didn't have anything to do—mined various documents that are extant from thousands of years ago to provide me with the information for an even further travel in time. When I was finally ready to write an expanded edition of A Golden Thread, it was more than just a revised edition. It was a whole new book, Let it Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy.
As you began looking into this history, were there things that were especially surprising or unexpected?
Oh, tremendously. I thought that the fact that in 1898 more than thirty percent of people in Pasadena were using solar energy to heat their water was just a fantastic story that would live on its own. I thought that was going to be a book in itself, maybe a coffee table book. I was also accumulating lots of amazing photographs and advertisements.
I discovered that the first photovoltaic module was built in 1873 and that the photovoltaic effect was discovered in 1875. Einstein became the father of photovoltaics in 1905 when he developed what is called his photoelectric equation.
Before Einstein, people thought everything was run by heat. We were in the age of thermodynamics. An engine that was powered by light could not exist in the minds of scientists and technologists, but in 1875 they discovered that light, and light alone, created an electrical current when it struck selenium. Most people didn't want to deal with this because it seemed to violate everything scientists and technologists knew.
Einstein blew out the entire physics community when he proposed that light travels as photons which then interact with the electrons and transfer their energy to the electrons. That causes movement and that's what we call electricity. Light had energy and not heat.
At first, people claimed that Einstein's ideas were destroying all of what was considered reasonable in scientific thought. They called him bold, they called him reckless. Seventeen years later he won the Nobel Prize. Not for his Theory of Relativity, but for his idea that light travels as packets of energy, which he called “light quanta,” which we now call “photons.”
You also traveled to some sites of early solar projects. What stands out as a highlight or revelation?
Several things stand out. For example, I went down to Miami, Florida. I had the address of a plumber who cares for all the solar water heaters that were installed in Florida prior to 1950. He took me around to see all these installations. He took me to see the younger babies, the ones that were built say in 1940. As the kicker he took me to a nine-unit apartment, where I climbed a very creaky ladder up to the roof to see a solar water heating system that was built in 1923 and is still producing sufficient hot water for nine units. That's not a bad lifetime for a product, right?
Another interesting visit was to a town called Bückeburg, where the author of the first exclusively solar book lived. The book was called All People Should Face Their Houses to the Midday Sun. I went to the archive in Bückeburg and stayed at a local hotel. Lo and behold, I learned that the hotel owner grew up in a passive solar house that was built in the town in 1649.
This was the same house where the author of the book, Dr. Bernhard Christoph Faust, the man responsible for reviving solar architecture in Europe in the early 19th century, had lived. After twenty years living in the house, in 1807 he suddenly latched onto the idea that all houses in Europe should open up to the midday sun as his did. He came to the great idea that building correctly is probably the most important aspect of life, so that people who are poor can enjoy solar heat as much as people who are rich. He noted that people who were wealthy would go south in the winter, in Germany to Italy and said that by building correctly to take in winter sunlight they would be able to move south in latitude without traveling.
He published his book in 1817. It won hearts and minds, and solar projects were implemented all over Germany between 1817 and 1850s.
Why do you think that no one before you connected these dots?
Actually, no one even mentioned the dots. There were no dots to connect until I began this work.
This is not John Perlin picking these things out of the air. It's going to the historical accounts which are available to everyone. I don't know why no one ever decided to do this or ever thought of these matters.
Do you think it's likely that we've lost the thread in regard to other earlier knowledge related to sustainability?
Definitely. It's like the quote from Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Who would have thought there was so much activity in solar energy over time?
Early on, when I would tell people I was writing a history of solar energy, they would laugh at me and say it's going to be a pretty thin book. It turned out to be a five hundred pages!