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CLASSIC BOOK REVIEW

The Sea Around Us, by Rachel L. Carson

Kirtley F. Mather

Vol. 39, No. 4 (OCTOBER 1951)

THE SEA AROUND US, by Rachel L. Carson; vii + 230 pages; 1 chart, 3 figs.; $3.50; Oxford University Press, 1951.

Writing this review, as I am doing, in Colorado, a mile and a half above sea level and about as far from the nearest ocean as one can get in North America, it is nevertheless impossible to neglect the potency of marine waters in the history of the earth and of man, so vivid is the picture of the sea as presented in this unusually fine book. It is scientific literature for the layman, par excellence, and at the same time contains a surprisingly large amount of information for professional scientists in many fields. Most notable is the fine literary style that makes it a truly enthralling volume. One can heartily commend the wisdom of the AAAS committee that awarded the George Westinghouse Science Writing Award in 1950 to Miss Carson for one of the chapters which had been published that year in the Yale Review.

Miss Carson is editor-in-chief of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was trained as a biologist at Johns Hopkins and Woods Hole. Her studies of the sea, however, include all aspects of oceanography and related phases of geology, meteorology, and climatology. The picture she presents is well-rounded and as complete as could be expected in a work of this kind. Many specialists dealing with the problems of the ocean have made themselves available for advice and information, and she has faithfully transmitted their ideas in her own distinctive manner.

The origin of ocean basins, the major structural and topographic feature of the earth, is still a mystery and Miss Carson treats it as such. She gives, however, only one of several plausible hypotheses, that the Pacific Ocean basin is the scar left by tidal disruption to form the moon. Thereafter, she is on much firmer ground, or should one say her ship sails more confidently on its well-charted course. The myriad forms of life in the surface waters, the seasonal changes in the activity of plants and animals, the strange and fantastic creatures that inhabit the sunless depths, and the hidden canyons and mountains of the sea floor are described with almost breathless interest.

To the geologist, the sea is “restless” not merely because of waves, currents, and tides, but because of the profound changes during its long history of continental transgression and withdrawal. Miss Carson does full justice to this aspect of its activity and is to be especially commended for the pains she has taken to explain how the record of the past has been deciphered, as well as to announce the results of the research that has been accomplished. Many interesting incidents of exploration and discovery, all too easily forgotten in the archives of the scientist and historian, highlight her pages.

The last three chapters deal specifically with man’s relationship to the sea. Here is a discussion of the influence of the ocean upon weather and climate, a consideration of the wealth of mineral matter potentially available in oceanic waters, and a thumbnail sketch of the earlier history of navigation. All in all, this is a book to recommend unqualifiedly to one’s friends, whether scientifically trained or not. More than likely, it will inspire new respect for scientific habits of mind and awaken dormant interests in scientific pursuits.

Kirtley F. Mather (1888–1978), the first editor of American Scientist's Scientists' Bookshelf, was a geologist and professor at Harvard University. He served as president of AAAS in the 1950s, during which time he also spoke out against the McCarthy-era inquisitions. This was not the first time Mather had advocated for freedom of expression: In the 1930s, he refused to take a "teachers' oath" proposed by the Massachusetts state legislature. In a 1996 biographical sketch of Mather for GSA Today, Kennard B. Bork notes, "Mather was happy to pledge allegiance to the federal government when he was inducted into the U.S. Army, but he rebelled against state fealty oaths for faculty members at private universities." Among Mather's books are The Earth Beneath Us (1964) and, with coauthor Dorothy Hewitt, Adult Education: A Dynamic for Democracy (1937). Bork's 1994 biography of Mather is titled Cracking Rocks and Defending Democracy.

 

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