22 October 2013

Atlantic, by Simon Winchester

Posted by Callan Bentley

winchieI finished Simon Winchester’s book Atlantic the other day. I consumed the audiobook version (this is one major positive aspect to my long commute: plenty of listening time), which was pleasantly read by Winchester himself. He’s got a good accent and a nice way of speaking – I recommend that medium.

Atlantic is a book about the Atlantic Ocean. It’s set up to cover the vast sweep of Atlantic history, and how connections can be drawn between the Atlantic and, well, everything. This is the sort of writing that Winchester specializes in, and it’s cut from a similar cloth as Malcolm Gladwell, or the “microhistory” phenomenon of a decade ago (e.g. Cod, Salt, A Perfect Red or Bananas: all excellent books), but I’d have to say that this volume feels a little bit haphazard – it’s a grab bag of random topics, all of which can be induced to yield some sort of connection to the Atlantic. But unlike the ocean it reviews, it’s not an especially deep book – it feels more like a smorgasbord lit by an Atlantic-colored light. There’s some good stuff there, but also a lot of filler. There were several times in ‘reading’ the book that I felt frustrated at the ratio of prose to insight. Winchester is an erudite man and a good writer, and he’s got an excellent vocabulary. But you couldn’t call his work “scholarly.” Oftentimes, his writing feels like it lacks the discipline to explore issues fully. Many times while listening, I sighed, and thought, “so many words employed for so little elucidation…”

In particular this applies to geology: the only reason I got into reading his work in the first place was his geological books (Krakatoa and The Map that Changed the World are both excellent, I thought.) But there’s really not much geology in Atlantic, and what little there is, feels like a tease. It’s not satisfying at all for someone whose appetite is craving some authentic Earth science.

There was a weak chapter (or prologue, really) on formation of Atlantic, from my perspective. It was scant on geological “meat,” and more arm-waving while employing vague but publicly-palatable words like “force” and “immense.” As a geologist, I’m totally biased about this, of course, but it seemed to me that a couple of site visits within the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP) would have been great. I’d rather he had visited the Palisades Sill or Gettysburg – and then told the story of the birth of the Atlantic from the deep historical record (the rocks). Similarly, I felt like there was a missed opportunity for geological teaching in the chapter on World War II. Submarine warfare in the Atlantic gets a detailed discussion, but I would have loved it if Winchester had indulged in a tangent on the Navy’s mapping of the deep, and the ensuing development of the idea of seafloor spreading.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed the discussion on L’Anse aux Meadows, the archaeological site in northern Newfoundland where the Vikings not only landed, but lived for years, more than four centuries before that masochistic genocidal zealot, Christopher Columbus, ever reached the Caribbean. I learned that the first European descent born on American soil (the first non-Native “American”) was Snorri Thorfinnsson. I love this fact – that we know the name of this first-of-many person, and I love that his name sounds like a character from Sesame Street. This was a real delight.

The exploration of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was another fascinating section. It’s a wrenching, horrific business, and there are passages in there that made me want to renounce the entirety of the human species. Honestly, Winchester is always an excellent writer, and sometimes his topics are chewy, interesting stuff. And other times, the same excellent writing gets devoted to material that’s not quite worthy of examination. A detailed account in one chapter is devoted to an airplane flight he took over the Atlantic – full of technical details that might be of interest to someone, but that someone wasn’t me. But the slavery section? I wept.

Finally, it is important to note that I was sincerely disappointed in the book’s coverage of climate change. On the one hand, it’s valid and true that climate change should be considered relevant to the history of the Atlantic Ocean, but Winchester strikes a pose that’s decidedly skeptical. He’s not a denialist, but neither does he embrace the scientific consensus. Words like “possibly” and “conceivably” seem to accompany every consensus conclusion. The tone, in other words, is one of doubt.

As with the book’s discussion of the rifting of Pangea, the language is sophisticated and emphatic, but the scientific understanding is plebeian, or presented as such. Rather than elucidating the physical science behind this important issue in any satisfyingly-coherent level of detail, he invokes odd analogies, like the Mayans asking if the gods are mad at them. According to Winchester, the global warming debate is more about hand-wringing and self-recrimination than it is the selective transparency of oxidized carbon. Climate is a physical system, and that gets lost when these quasi-metaphysical musings are placed at the center of the conversation.

However, to his credit, he does lay out the evidence for a human driver to the current episode of warming, and draws attention to the distinction between agreed-upon facts and unagreed-upon interpretations. I present it very similarly to my students:

  1. Burning fossil fuels generates greenhouse gases,
  2. greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere,
  3. greenhouse gas levels are increasing,
  4. temperature is increasing,
  5. therefore, burning fossil fuels is increasing the temperature of our atmosphere.

Another point of agreement that I have with his approach is that he emphasizes one of the “simplest” ways to solve much of our climate vulnerability is to stop letting people live in geologically-unsustainable settings. Much as I love New Orleans, it seems like folly from the long-term perspective to keep rebuilding that sinking city. We’d save lives if no one were dwelling on those swampy coasts in the first place. As to how realistic that is … well, of course there are all sorts of personal property issues as well as the question of the limits (if any) to individual liberty – that a person can take the risks that he or she chooses to take. And there’s those several centuries of precedent to contend with too…

A major failure of the climate change discussion was to treat the “Climategate” email pseudo-scandal as a proper scandal, falling hook, line, and sinker for the denialist reading of Michael Mann’s “trick” and the Hadley Center’s justifiable upset at being barraged (harassed?) with Freedom of Information Act requests. Part of this doubtless stems from the book’s unfortunate publication between when the news of the hacking broke, and when the multiple independent investigations all found the climate scientists innocent of malfeasance.

There was no significant exploration of ocean acidification, either, one of the ways the Atlantic is likely to most acutely feel the effects of the current perturbation to the carbon cycle. Though Winchester even introduces Emiliania huxleyi, the coccolithophore isn’t invoked as a canary in the Atlantic’s coal mine. Another missed opportunity: startling “mesocosm” experiments have been carried out to see how these phytoplankton react to living in acidic waters, and it’s not especially pretty.

All told, I’d have to say that I liked it less than I wished. In spite of Winchester’s cock-up in the aftermath of the big Japanese earthquake, I really like a lot of his work (read The Professor and the Madman, for instance – it’s a fascinating, well-written tale). As a body of work, I wish it were more scientifically rigorous, but the fact that it’s not is more a failing of my own expectations than it is a failing of the actual written works. So, while I can’t really recommend Atlantic, I have no doubt that I’ll keep reading his stuff.