It's a rare thing for a scientist to be a lyrical and sensitive writer. Rarer still is for one to write a gripping, passionate adventure novel--about science. With "One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead," chemist Clare Dudman has broken several molds. Her tale of Alfred L. Wegener (1880–1930), the German scientist who proposed the idea of continental drift in the early 1900s, is as swashbuckling as an "Indiana Jones" movie, as heartbreaking as any great romance, and a stunning work of artistic prose.
But unlike the characters that populate most genres, Wegener is driven by scientific discovery. Against a backdrop of family tragedies, academic life in Germany during the aftermath of World War I, and the struggle to have his ideas accepted, Wegener's untiring, lifelong desire to understand his physical surroundings is chronicled in Dudman's book.
As an adventuring scientist, Wegener had the luck to be living at the beginning of the 20th century, when there were many places on Earth yet unexplored and technology was just starting to make that exploration possible. His career was filled with gritty danger, whether he was setting balloon flight records, trekking across Greenland's treacherous but hypnotically beautiful icescape, or fighting in the trenches of WWI.
Dudman, a native of Wales who has a Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry from the University of Durham and King's College London, spent time as an industrial researcher before turning to writing. She published a children's book, "Edge of Danger," which won the Kathleen Fidler Award in 1995. She then won an Arts Council of England Writers award for a short piece about Wegener, which allowed her to travel to Greenland and Germany, expanding the piece into a novel. The book was originally published last year in the U.K. under the title "Wegener's Jigsaw," but the U.S. title is better suited because, more than anything, the story is about Wegener's obsession with the icy landscape of Greenland.
Dudman begins with a nod to Wegener's childhood and young adulthood in Germany, including his education at the University of Berlin during the exciting years of Max Planck and Emil Fischer. He received his Ph.D. in astronomy in 1904. Then suddenly the book plunges into nonstop adventure as Wegener and a team of scientists set sail for Greenland to map the continent's previously unknown northeast coast. Wegener's group contends with subzero temperatures, cracking ice, bears, and near starvation. During this and each of Wegener's several subsequent trips, the men barely escape with their lives. The expedition's suffering dogs and ponies are not so lucky.
Dudman compellingly illustrates Wegener's deep love for Greenland despite the danger. As Wegener and his colleagues explore an ice cathedral inside a glacier, she writes: "There is still enough light for a section of ice drapery to sparkle, and for an ice stalactite to glitter like an unlit chandelier. Beneath, its partner, the mound of an ice stalagmite, is lit with a jelly-like translucence, its globules of ice fused together like abandoned frog spawn."
Wegener, as Dudman portrays him, is a curious yet believable mix of socially awkward scientist and obsessed, fearless adventurer. In his twenties, Wegener is already setting records for the highest balloon flights, as he measures atmospheric circulation with his brother, Kurt. Yet he's barely aware of women, and it takes the insistent advances of his colleague's inquisitive daughter, Else Köppen, to lead him into a marriage. Else is instantly his lifelong, unwavering supporter, even as he aggressively pursues Greenland.
In fact, Wegener is restless when his life is calm and comfortable, and he seems to thrive on the discomforts of Arctic exploration. Never is he happier than when breathing cold, dry air, sleeping in rotting furs in crowded tents, and subsisting on the traditional Native American emergency food, pemmican, a mixture of dried meat paste, fruit, and fat.
Wegener himself could easily have come across as cartoonish, a relentless tough guy battling freezing temperatures, starvation, and frostbite. Yet in Dudman's hands, Wegener is a whole person, not suffering from overdrawn machismo or retreating from sensitivity--his misty-eyed platonic crush on his colleague Johan Peter Koch is almost feminine by today's standards, yet feels uncontrived.
It was undoubtedly Wegener's knowledge and experience with the motions and behavior of icebergs that fueled his formulation of the idea of continental drift. The spark came, however, while he was perusing a paper describing the identical fossil records of Brazil and Africa. Suddenly, the similarities between the land masses' coasts overturned in his mind the theory that a series of land bridges once connected the continents. "Behind my eyelids the white outlines of the continents slide together to form one unbroken jigsaw," Dudman writes.
Wegener invokes isostasy, a geophysical term used to explain how icebergs float in the sea. He envisions himself looking over the shoulders of explorers in the past, who are taking gravitational measurements of the Himalayan mountains: "The rock of the mountain is like an iceberg floating on the denser rock of the mantle ... Isostasy, I whisper, but it is a word no one yet knows. Isostasy: it sounds a little like the wind shaking up dry leaves."
Wegener published his ideas in 1915, but the concept of continental drift was met with hostility and ridicule. For most of his life, he was tortured by the idea's inability to win widespread acceptance. That would not happen until the 1960s, long after he died. Although continental drift is Wegener's most famous contribution, it fits alongside the other events in his life, rather than serving as the centerpiece.
Dudman recounts Wegener's immersion in a scientific milieu rarely available to today's scientists. Among other things, he formulated theories of how raindrops form, and how craters form on the moon.
But even as he approached his 50th birthday, Wegener's desire to explore Greenland remained unquenched, and much to the consternation of his wife and children, he set out one last time to map the thickness of Greenland's ice sheet. His team was beset by disaster after disaster. Finally, Wegener died while trying to cross from the center of the ice sheet back to the coast, an event that Dudman chronicles with aching poignancy.
So rare a life told so well, "One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead" is a frozen jewel for anyone longing for a truly great human adventure.
Senior Editor Elizabeth Wilson is a C&EN science and technology reporter based in Berkeley, Calif.