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Despite Its Dull Title, The Restless Sea Rises to the Top of a Well-Charted Genre

Richard Strickland

The Restless Sea: Exploring the World Beneath the Waves. Robert Kunzig. 336 pp. W. W. Norton & Company, 1999. $24.95.

Popular books about the oceans are a soggy tradition dating back to the 1950s. On my curiosity shelf are faded titles such as Exploring the Ocean World and Mysteries of the Deep. These tomes are filled with now-quaint tales about the bright future when "man" would live beneath the waves, ranch whales like cattle and extract limitless food and energy from the sea.

Based on its insipid title alone, Robert Kunzig's The Restless Sea would seem to fit right into this bland mold. But don't judge this book by its cover. The Restless Sea immediately surfaces at the top of the list of journalistic treatments of oceanography.

Our view of the oceans today is much more sober, less naive and more pessimistic than it was in the breathless days of Sea Hunt and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. And yet the discoveries since then have far exceeded the most fanciful imaginings of science fiction. Kunzig does an admirable job of conveying these developments in a style accessible to a bright high school student. Moreover, even oceanographers will appreciate the book for its devotion to historical perspective and the clarity and faithfulness of its imagery.

Passages in several chapters of The Restless Sea are taken nearly verbatim from articles Kunzig has written over the years for Discover magazine. He has added substantial new material in an effort to avoid a pasted-together feel. The result is more of a mosaic than an integrated whole, but each piece is enjoyable by itself, and the transitions between them are smooth and logical. Each chapter succeeds in overturning some key bit of conventional wisdom about the oceans. He does not hit just arbitrary hot spots of curious or notable research. He chooses from among generally the most important, the broadest, the most revolutionary, even the most subversive advances in the science.

His theme is that the ocean is no longer infinite, invulnerable and unfathomable, as it has long seemed. Instead, it is finite and vulnerable to degradation by humans and can be understood by modern oceanographers. To this predictable but serviceable premise he adds the obligatory observation about how much of earth's surface is unknown and unseen beneath miles of water.

Kunzig starts with the very old—the Big Bang—to upset his first dogma: Scientists now believe that the water in the oceans came from comets and meteorites rather than from earth's interior. He also debunks the cherished genesis story that life originated from lightning acting on a brew of simple chemicals, as Miller and Urey tried to simulate in a test tube; DNA's precursors probably came from comets, too.

Kunzig reviews the development of sea-floor mapping and plate tectonics. He navigates from deep-sea geology to life at deep-sea vents, then to bizarre midwater plankton, to surface plankton and their newly discovered dependence on iron, to the crash of the cod fisheries and finally to ocean currents and their role in climate change.

But his descriptions are more than a readable narrative of the ascent of oceanography. Kunzig traces critical periods in the field's emergence from its myths. For example, he notes the successive demise of various beliefs that the deep sea is the "azoic zone," the habitat of "bathybius" and, most recently, a changeless province of weak circulation and a depauperate fauna.

The wealth of detail is impressive and surprising. Just when it seems that Kunzig has told us everything that could be interesting or significant about jellyfish colonies, for example, he dredges up more submerged gems. From sonar traces, he evokes the death throes of tens of thousands of capelin (a small fish) at the jaws of marauding cod. For the most part, he resists the temptation to get overly cute by using simile and metaphor as ends in themselves. Whereas his imagery would be out of place in a scientific journal, it is well within the bounds of poetic license and is a nice treat for the recreational reader. Where warranted, he quotes scientists at length, such as in the humorously clinical description of the cods' mating dance (they climax in an inverted missionary position).

Kunzig also excavates colorful but relevant personal details of scientists from a century ago and more. Throughout the book, he presents alternative theories that scientists developed to explain phenomena and does so without prejudicing the reader by immediately telegraphing which theories were later to fall by the wayside. He lovingly explores the processes of curiosity, observation, induction and deduction that make up the scientific method. In this way, the reader gets the flavor of the detective work that is scientific inquiry. And Kunzig is sure to include the whimsical element of serendipity that makes science exciting and provides some of its most crucial breakthroughs. The best example, of course, is the discovery of an entirely new ecosystem, where no life was supposed to exist, by geologists who were simply looking for deep-sea hot springs.

I must applaud an author who can teach me, a student of the oceans for 30 years, that the word "hydrogen" was coined two centuries ago to mean "source of water." The book opened my eyes to numerous wonders that had been just to the side of my well-beaten professional path.

But Kunzig could have added more case studies to make a more comprehensive review of today's ocean science. He does not tackle one of the most urgent, complex and newsworthy areas of oceanographic research of the past decade: El Ni?o. He also says little about ocean pollution, except anecdotally as a means of tracing ocean currents. And he overlooks the disappearance of shorelines worldwide as sea level rises, a problem that grows worse when we fortify the coast to prevent it. Nevertheless, the book would make an excellent source of cognate readings to accompany a more conventional oceanography textbook.

One final regret: This book would have benefited immensely from illustrations. Had Kunzig and his publisher included photos and graphics, the book could almost stand on its own for teaching introductory oceanography. I call on them to follow the lead of Longitude author Dava Sobel and issue a second edition with full graphic embellishment. My first choice? If you please, a photo of Stygiomedusa fabulosa, a 5-foot-wide jellyfish that is sampled using a 55-gallon drum.

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