Deep stuff

Robert Kunzig, winner of the 2001 Aventis Science Books general prize, brings oceanography to life.

Timandra Harkness

Topics Politics

Mapping the Deep: The Extraordinary Story of Ocean Science, by Robert Kunzig, published by a Sort Of Book, £8.99.

According to Peter Tallack of Weidenfeld and Nicolson, when it comes to popular science books, ‘big ideas sell’.

The 2000 Aventis Science Books general prize winner, The Elegant Universe, certainly qualified on that score, with its eye-opening account of an 11-dimensional universe composed of vibrating entities too small to detect. It is perhaps more impressive that this year’s winner, Robert Kunzig’s Mapping the Deep, manages to fit a similar grandeur of scope into an unassuming volume subtitled ‘the extraordinary story of ocean science’.

Kunzig entices us with the sheer range of oceanography. He conjectures a world in which the flora, fauna and topography of the land remain as undiscovered as those of the seas still are. Would we not be fired with curiosity to find new mountain ranges, new species, under our very noses?

Of course we would – and that curiosity, with Kunzig’s sense of drama and narrative, pulls us along on a journey that starts with the formation of hydrogen atoms a mere 300,000 years after the Big Bang, and ends with the eventual evaporation of the oceans, when the sun swells to a red giant. On the way, he zooms in to the astonishing bacteria that live around the volcanic vents on the deep ocean floor, using, in the absence of sunlight, chemosynthesis instead of photosynthesis to support an entire ecosystem based on hydrogen sulphide.

Rather than trying to squeeze every drop of knowledge into one book, Kunzig has attempted, in his own words, ‘to find the stories of discovery that were representative of each area’ (1). His book is consequently richly populated with the characters whose stubborn curiosity has pierced the gloom of the deep oceans. Each story is not only an explanation of the science, but a human story of luck, persistence and eventual triumph.

Along the way, science is inevitably caught up in the currents of human society. The history of the North American cod tells us more about the development of fishing techniques than about cod reproduction, and the failure of the population biologists to save the cod populations before fishing quotas were cut to zero is not a failure of the scientific method.

Kunzig is keen to sound environmental warnings about human impact on the oceans – not sentimentally, but with the occasional hint that inaction now could have dire consequences for us all in the future. He does, however, give room to scientists like Donald Anderson, who argue that coastal pollution, for example, could be fixed by deliberate intervention:

‘This belief may brand me as a heretic among my colleagues, some of whom fear that the ocean will be further despoiled by inept human attempts to manipulate ecosystems we do not understand’, says Anderson. ‘At the heart of this negativism is a conviction that mankind does not possess the skills, knowledge or right to manipulate the marine environment on any significant scale. We are, however, already doing exactly that.’ (2)

Ultimately, though, the words of the oceanographers shine through with the joy of discovery. Colleen Cavanaugh describes how, as a first-year graduate student who had ‘never had a microbiology class’, she was attending a lecture by Meredith Jones of the Smithsonian on tube worms – creatures with no mouth and no gut – that live at undersea vents. How did they nourish themselves?

‘It was at that point that I jumped up and said, “Well, it’s perfectly clear! They must have sulphur-oxidising bacteria inside their bodies”‘, exclaims Cavanaugh. ‘But Jones said “Sit down, kid”.’ (3) Within a couple of years, however, Cavanaugh proved her case, and since then 100 species have been found to depend on sulphide-oxidising bacteria.

I bet Jones never said ‘Sit down, kid’ again.

Buy Mapping the Deep: The Extraordinary Story of Ocean Science by Robert Kunzig from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(1) Speech at Waterstone’s event in June 2001

(2) Mapping the Deep, p232

(3) Mapping the Deep, p142

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Topics Politics


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