Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The book I haven’t read

my copy looks exactly like this
This week marks 50 years since Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ was published.

I care about the environment in part because it's the only environment we have to support us, thus it's our lifeline. I agree with Carl Sagan when he wrote “the simple fact is that we are performing unprecedented experiments on the global environment and in general hoping against hope that the problems will solve themselves and go away.” I’ve been aware of Rachel Carson’s book and how it is credited with starting the environmental movement since I was in high school - yet I’ve never read it (yes I should read it - as soon as I find a copy in a used bookstore I’ll pick it up).

I can’t comment on ‘Silent Spring’, I have however, read another book by Rachel Carson, ‘The Sea Around Us.’ My grandfather gave me his copy of the book when I switched into oceanography for my undergrad. In the front cover the inscription says ‘this book is presented to H.B. Hunt as an award for excellent meteorological observations carried out in S.S. Lakemba on a voluntary basis during the year 1951.’ He must have been presented the book when it was brand new as it was published in 1951. By the early 90’s, it looked slightly ratty on my book shelf and I didn’t read it then, but I kept it. A few years ago I realized who the author was, so I decided to pull it out and finally read it.

The acknowledgments read like a who's who of early oceanography - all names of people who made major contributions to the field. In addition to her background in marine biology, she did her homework. I found it an easy read that made the ocean seem magical. Consider her description of the tides:

There is no drop of water in the ocean, not even in the deepest part of the abyss, that does not know and respond to the mysterious forces that create the tide … no other force that affects the sea is so strong.

Or surface waves:

It is a confused pattern that the waves make in the open sea – a mixture of countless different wave trains, intermingling, overtaking, passing, or sometimes engulfing one another; each group differing from the others in the place and manor of its origin, in its speed, its direction of movement; some doomed never to reach any shore, others destined to roll across half an ocean before they dissolve in thunder on a distant beach

What I also enjoyed about the book is what she didn’t mention. Places like hydrothermal vents hadn’t been discovered yet - so the belief at the time was that the abyss was barren of life. Ideas like plate tectonics were not yet widely accepted so, the ocean floor was presented as static. We have learned so much in the time since the book was published.

Note: the picture came from Wikipedia

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