John Perlin’s book, “Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy,” tells of a scheming thirteenth century priest/scientist who tries to convince the Pope to start a solar weapons’ race by showing him a treatise written by an early Muslim geometrician regarding solar burning mirrors. Had solar energy lived up to its threat as the ultimate weapon, it might have taken center stage much earlier as the power source of the world. The military today revisits this thirteenth-century vision with great success.
Building the Ultimate Solar Weapon
Panic struck late medieval Europe. The Muslims were on the verge of producing, according to one of the most learned men of the day, Roger Bacon, the ultimate doomsday device, a solar mirror that “would burn fiercely everything on anything it could be focused upon.”
“We believe,” Bacon reported to Clement, the reigning pope, “that once built, the Anti-Christ (Muslims) will use these mirrors to burn up cities, camps and weapons.”
Bacon obtained his information from a treatise called Discourse on the Paraboloidal Focussing Mirror originally written in Arabic in the eleventh century, but just hot off the press in Latin two hundred years later. It feigned innocence – just a piece of mathematical dabbling. The author, al Hazan, had in his possession in Cairo all the ancient Greek works that taught how to turn the mild rays of the sun into fire through the science of optics. Such devices were known as burning mirrors. al Hazan judged them as “the noblest things conceived by geometers of ancient times” but faulted the ancients for “not convincingly explaining their proofs.” He therefore decided “to explain and clarify things, so that those who seek truth will know the facts.”
But all this academic chatter was just subterfuge by those sly Arabs, according to Bacon. Specific details hidden by this enemy Saracen revealed that the enemy of Christ and Christendom had the means and the knowledge to soon destroy the West. But not to worry, he reassured Pope Clement, “the most skillful of Latins is busily engaged in the construction of this mirror as well.” Whether this Latin was a colleague, as Bacon suggested, or merely his alter ego remains, unknown.
Several years later though Bacon had wonderful news – his “colleague” had finally finished building that solar weapon after working “many years at great expense and labor. If Christians living in the Holy Land had just twelve such mirrors,” Bacon advised Clement, “they could expel the Saracens from their territory, avoiding any casualties on their side,” and making it unnecessary for any more Crusades. All he needed, he let the pope know, was 90 Florins ($18,000) to realize the mission.
Clement died before any money went to Bacon for such research and development and his successor condemned trying to convert sunlight into fire as the devil’s work. Instead of getting funding to build the ultimate solar weapon for the defense of the faith, Bacon was branded a heretic and thrown into prison
Some seven hundred years later, watching the world embrace nuclear power, the father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, saw the revival of solar weaponry as the only means of getting the powers that be to end their enchantment with nuclear energy and embrace an all-out effort to harness the sun’s power. This could only happen, Dr. Oppenheimer opined, with a little whimsy, if Government took the following steps, as they had with nuclear energy:
“(a) Give appropriate high-level indications of a super weapon based on the sun;
(b) Classify the sun as Top Secret;
(c) Establish a commission to manage it for the benefit of all mankind;
(d) At the same time, make an official policy pronouncement indicating that we wish to use the sun, not for devastation and war, but for the betterment of mankind.”
Interestingly, the U.S. military’s reliance on solar-powered satellites since the late 1950’s has made it particularly bullish on solar energy. A growing amount of field equipment now runs on solar, too. A military engineer explains why: “Having photovoltaics, combined with batteries you will never run out of power. If you are stuck somewhere and you don’t know when your re-supply is coming, photovoltaics, unlike non-renewables, will keep you going. This is critical in situations we in the military face.”
Furthermore, in the past decade, the United States has lost more than a thousand service members to attacks on convoys primarily hauling fuel that in many instances solar cells can displace since one-third of that fuel is used to generate electricity, as Major General Anthony Jackson points out. “For every fifty trucks carrying fuel,” the general explains, “someone is killed or loses a limb. I know the cost of oil, I know it up front and personal. If you have never seen the mixture of blood and sand, it’s a harsh purple on the desert floor.”
Source: Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year History of Solar Energy
Author: John Perlin is author of four books: “A Golden Thread: 2500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology;” “A Forest Journey: Wood and Civilization;” “From Space to Earth: The Story of Solar Electricity;” and his latest book, “Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy.” Harvard University Press Chose “A Forest Journey” as one of its “One-Hundred Great Books” published by the press, as well as a “Classic in Science and World History.” The Geographic Society and the Sierra Club chose the book as their “Publication of the Year.” “Power of the Sun” and “Sunrise” are two documentaries for which I did the screenplays. “Power of the Sun” was done in collaboration with two Nobel Laureates at University of California, Santa Barbara, where I am now a member of the Department of Physics.