Issue Date: June 30, 2008
The Art Of Science
As the editor-in-chief of C&EN, a fair number of books find their way into my in-box.
Many are extremely technical and others are textbooks. Some are on worthy topics that are not of great interest to me. Most are directed to the ACS library or to the C&EN book review editor. A few titles intrigue me and wind up in piles on various surfaces in my office, waiting to be read.
Recently, a trade paperback entitled "Water, Ice & Stone: Science and Memory on the Antarctic Lakes" by geochemist Bill Green arrived in my in-box. I had a few extra minutes that day, so I picked it up and started reading. I was immediately captivated by Green's eloquence, commitment to rigorous science, and descriptive powers.
"Water, Ice & Stone" was first published in 1995. It was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for nature writing and was a nominee for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. It had been out of print for several years.
"Water, Ice & Stone" is a difficult book to categorize or describe. Green is a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He has been conducting research on the chemistry of Antarctic lakes since 1968. In the introduction to the current edition, Green writes that his interest in writing the book "grew from a personal need to show something of the 'human face of science' and to provide an account—all too rare in our literature—of how it felt to do field research in the hostile, austere, but beautiful environment of the Antarctic continent."
Green succeeds beautifully in doing just that, but "Water, Ice & Stone" does much more. It is a lyrical paean to science, both the intellectual edifice science represents and the doing of science in the field and in the lab. In writing it, Green was—perhaps even consciously—attempting to bridge C. P. Snow's two cultures. Green is a scientist, first and foremost, but he is also a philosopher and a prose poet.
Of his decision to become a geochemist (he received his Ph.D. in physical chemistry), Green writes: "I cannot exactly trace the path that leads here. Perhaps there is no path, only matted brush, a few indecipherable tracks. Things get lost and memory is always part fiction. But I can say that at some point I found geochemistry and without much plan or forethought it began to occupy much of my time. In geochemistry the chemical elements were not mere symbols on a chart, beautiful as those symbols were—hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, singing out almost as I spoke their names. They were voyagers among rivers and mountains, visitors to the atmosphere, dwellers in the abyss. In geochemistry the elements came to life, propelled by the forces of wind and water and sunlight, constrained and animated by the laws of physics and chemistry. I began to think of them as immortals roaming the planet, tiny gods whose adventures would make a mythologist blush."
"Water, Ice & Stone" is at once part memoir, part narrative of scientific exploration, part philosophical treatise. Its focus is Green's 10-year investigation of the behavior of nutrients and heavy metals in a series of lakes in the McMurdo Dry Valleys near the major U.S. base in Antarctica, McMurdo Station.
The book, he writes, "draws on more than fourteen months of journal notes collected over seven field seasons. It arose, I think, from the need to talk about the Antarctic work in a more reflective and personal way—in a way that could not easily be accommodated within the pages of professional journals. From the outset, the continent raised questions for me that went beyond the purview of science. These were questions about the ways we experience the world and respond to its physical settings; how we decide, as individuals, to do with our lives what we do with them; the sources of our wonder; the nature of science itself."
It's not exactly beach reading, but "Water, Ice & Stone" is well worth your time.
Thanks for reading.
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