Our Affair with El Niño: How We Transformed an Enchanting
Peruvian Current into a Global Climate Hazard. S. George
Philander. xii + 275 pp. Princeton University Press, 2004. $26.95.
My first visit to a rural homestead in Zimbabwe took place in the
late 1990s. The event entailed a drive of several hours down a dirt
road, broken by potholes, through an unfamiliar landscape that held
many surprises: granite domes that jutted up suddenly from the
rolling red earth of the high veldt; trees whose thin
branches rose to create a flat, rather than a rounded, crown;
clusters of thatched huts. Our arrival at the farm, where my
agronomist colleagues and I were greeted politely, brought other
novelties, from the immaculately swept surface of the earthen patio
to the mats on which the female kin of the farmer sat in silence as
they listened to the conversation, mediated by an interpreter. I was
trying not to stare at my surroundings during the long periods of
sonorous flow, unintelligible to me, of Shona, the language widely
spoken in the country, when suddenly our host uttered three
syllables I knew well: El Niño.
How did it come about that the name of this seasonal ocean current,
formerly known only to some fishermen in coastal Peru and a few
geoscientists, entered the vocabulary of even a poor maize farmer in
southern Africa? S. George Philander's new book, Our Affair with
El Niño, details the process by which El
Niño became a household term around the world. The
work's subtitle—How We Transformed an Enchanting Peruvian
Current into a Global Climate Hazard—suggests some of
the elements of the term's transformation: Formerly believed to
affect only Peru, El Niño is now understood to be global in
scale. First recognized as an ocean current, it is now known to have
atmospheric and climatic dimensions, which have become a central
focus of concern. Once regarded as a mere curiosity, El Niño
has been revealed to be a phenomenon capable of causing great
destruction, creating floods, landslides and epidemics, and bringing
drought to farmers in Zimbabwe and elsewhere.
Philander examines this transformation closely. He presents the
current scientific understanding of El Niño concisely,
explaining the details of circulation in the ocean and atmosphere
with lucid analogies and thoughtful examples. He describes the broad
outlines of how this understanding emerged, piecemeal, along complex
and tangled paths. It is as a work in the history of science that
the book makes its greatest contributions.
Philander speaks at times of the gulf that separates the two
cultures (the humanities and the sciences). But his account actually
demonstrates that overemphasizing the cultural divide can lead to
inaccurate conclusions. Indeed, the book challenges the common view
that greater insight into El Niño's effects was first
achieved within the closed world of scientific research communities
and later spread to less technically sophisticated groups in the
Philander debunks this notion, first by demonstrating that neither
science nor society is homogeneous. A diverse array of scientists
have worked on various aspects of El Niño. Philander offers
vivid insights into the very different cultures of meteorologists
and oceanographers, which he backs up with well-chosen examples. He
contrasts the orientations and concerns of the field researchers who
compiled detailed instrument-based data sets of the Earth with those
of the computer specialists who constructed complex simulations of
environmental processes. He also shows how a great variety of social
groups contributed to the synthesis of El Niño science in
particular ways: the early urban crowds who were fascinated with
pioneering balloon ascents; ships' stewards who discovered that they
could chill bottles of wine by suspending them in the cool waters
not far below the surface in many areas of the ocean; farmers in
drought-prone areas who were eager for rain; military leaders who
wanted to anticipate weather fluctuations in strategic zones.
Moreover, Philander reveals the porous nature of the boundary
between science and society, describing the ways each influences the
other. He shows that specific scientific developments are affected
by social as well as scientific forces. He joins those who move
beyond the shopworn distinction between “internalist”
accounts of scientific progress (which center on the ability of
scientists to push forward the state of knowledge about topics of
interest within scientific communities) and
“externalist” ones (which emphasize the social and
economic pressures driving science). An internalist historian of
science, seeking to explain the development of networks of weather
stations, for example, might point to the invention of the telegraph
in the 1840s, which allowed information to be rapidly communicated
and compiled, whereas an externalist might single out the storms
that severely weakened the British and French navies in their
battles with the Russians during the Crimean War in the 1850s,
prompting leaders in these governments to push for better ways of
predicting such things. Philander is familiar with both sides of the
story and integrates them thoughtfully.
Understanding of the global scale of El Niño, particularly
the movement of warm water in the tropical Pacific, advanced in
1957, when researchers from many nations coordinated their efforts
as part of the International Geophysical Year. An internalist
account would emphasize that this year followed the well-established
traditions of earlier International Polar Years; an externalist one
would stress the importance of the Cold War (which led countries to
compete in this scientific arena) and of local economic factors,
such as the desire of commercial fishers in the Pacific to locate
schools of tuna.
Philander ends his tour through the physical systems that give rise
to El Niño and the social systems that give rise to El
Niño science by describing ways that science and social
programs can, and often do, combine to reduce human vulnerability to
the hazards associated with El Niño. He closes by expressing
the hope that the gains that humanity has made in this regard will
allow us to face the threat of climate change, which will clearly
require even more people of diverse backgrounds to work
together.—Benjamin S. Orlove, Environmental Science
and Policy, University of California, Davis
"Penguins are 10 times older than humans and have been here for a very, very long time," said Daniel Ksepka, Ph.D., a North Carolina State University research assistant professor. Dr. Ksepka researches the evolution of penguins and how they came to inhabit the African continent.
Because penguins have been around for over 60 million years, their fossil record is extensive. Fossils that Dr. Ksepka and his colleagues have discovered provide clues about migration patterns and the diversity of penguin species.
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