October 14, 2007

Comments by Moderator Jim Lynch

Topic: The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson

Moderator: Jim Lynch, author of The Highest Tide


One of the first things to enthrall me about marine research was reading about Rachel Carson’s fascination with grunions, a small shimmering fish that beaches itself on the California coast just long enough to drop and fertilize eggs during the highest tides of the warmer months.

As Rachel put it in The Sea Around Us, nobody knows if it’s the pressure or rhythm of the water or something to do with the moon or what exactly it is that so precisely synchronizes these little fish with the monthly tidal cycles. She drove home my wonder with tides when she brought up the case of a sea worm that will rise and fall out of the sand with the tidal cycles even if it is moved to an aquarium in some basement in Kansas.

What struck me about that was that even a brainless worm is more in tune with the tides than most humans.

Like most things, the marine world becomes more fascinating the closer we look. In fact, marine science in general is far more exotic and exciting than I expected. I assumed the subject was finite, that almost everything had already been learned. I didn’t realize that we are still discovering dozens and sometimes hundreds of new species of sea life every year. I found it amazing while writing The Highest Tide in 2003, for example, that nobody had ever seen a giant squid alive and swimming.

The largest invertebrate on the planet was still a mystery to us?!

What got me further enthralled was when I started exploring tidal flats at night with a headlamp. If you’ve never done it, I highly recommend it. Tidal flats are freaky enough during daylight, but at night the setting feels like science fiction, like you are trespassing on another planet. Crabs and shrimp and other nocturnal creatures are far more bountiful. One night I came across a 22-legged purple and brown sunflower sea star the size of a manhole cover moving across the flats way faster than any sea star should be able to travel.

The point of sharing a sliver of my book research is to point out that the details of my own findings helped inspire me to write a novel that hinged on the notion that most of us go through life so oblivious to the natural world around us that a boy who simply pays attention could come across as a genius, possibly even a prophet. And that idea, in part, grew out of watching the way Rachel mixed compelling research with her imagination and prose to create books that helped you think.

Obviously, part of making research compelling to read is to write it up as engagingly as you can. Journalists write most popular science books and articles and do their best to translate complex findings and ideas. However, at times, a lot gets lost in translation, which is why Rachel’s work was so extraordinary. She was both scientist and lyrical writer. In her hands, the nuggets of her research fit like vivid anecdotes into the bigger stories she wanted to weave.

She tells us about the grunions and the convoluta worm in a chapter that encourages us to imagine the history of the tides and their future too, how tidal friction is slowing down the spinning of our earth that used to rotate every four hours in its early days and continues to slow.
Regardless of Rachel, journalists need to become better scientists and scientists need to become better writers, if they want their findings to be more compelling on the page.

As a journalist who wrote about many environmental issues, I longed for eloquent people who could explain their research and findings in compelling fashion. Too often, modern day environmental debates get reduced to sparring matches between loud, sometimes reckless, spokespersons for environmental groups and businesses. And the people with the most valuable information are usually, and unfortunately, the quietest voice at the table, the cautious, often to the point of being dull, scientists.

Al Gore just won the Nobel Prize for ringing the alarms on global warming. Regardless of what you think of Gore, it is hard to deny that his movie, “An Inconvenient Truth” used an impressive array of compelling research to make what had been a complex fuzzy issue more provocative and personal.

In fact, I think it is safe to say, “An Inconvenient Truth” would have been praised profusely by Rachel Carson were she around in her 100th year to comment.

What scientific research or studies or reports do you find particularly compelling? And is it the information itself or the way it’s presented?

Shippensburg students, what was the most compelling thing you learned or saw from your ocean expedition? In other words, what will you tell friends and family when they ask you what you found particularly interesting or surprising?

And for all book club readers, please keep up with the accounts of the Shippensburg adventure by clicking on “Field Notes” in the upper right corner of this page beneath Rachel’s photo.


Rondell S. said...

I really enjoyed reading your description of being in the tidal flats at night. I have been out in the tidal flats at night also and I remember it as one of the most amazing things I've ever done. I used to go out with a crew of biology teachers to collect specimens for their classes. At first I was a little initmidated being out at night in this unknown territory. But when the foggy beams from our headlamps lit up the goings-on in the dark water it did become magical. The first thing my light landed on was a tiny transparent shrimp. Some of the creatures' names, so exotic to me, I still remember: chitons, nudibranchs, sculpins, anemones, limpets, abalone, barnacles. I also encountered a sea star that had to be seen to be believed.

Ian D. said...

I just stumbled upon your blog and it seems like a place for thoughtful discussion. How do you address criticism that Carson caused millions of malaria deaths by getting DDT banned? While this seemed to be an argument relagated to the far-right, I recently read something in the National Geographic noting the validity of the argument.

Herb said...

I agree with your assessment of making science more palatable to the regular person. "Technical talk" does make people's eyes glaze over but on the other hand there is a genuine interest in scientific topics. I think a lot of people are desperate to understand more about what's happening, for example, in the case of global warming.

Al Gore is a good example of someone who dedicated himself to finding a way to help people connect with this complex environmental concern. He's been brilliantly successful at it and now his work is being globally recognized. He has stated often that Rachel Carson was one of his great inspirations.

LRmom said...

I enjoyed the way you related her book and field notes to an underlying interest in tides. I have been very curious lately about animals that spawn on certain beaches year after year no matter the weather, beach degradation or other human-related issues may change that beach area. I would love to know if any of you other m.biologist have experienced that such problem as such species as sea turtles and others try to spawn or lay eggs on local beaches.

Nancy Pollot said...

Ian, in response to the question you raise, I would refer you to some previous posts on this blog, in April and in May. There you will find that interesting topic discussed at some length. Please go to the Archives (scroll all the way down under the photo of Rachel Carson) and click on April, then go to the Comments section for April 26. For May, go to the Comments for May 1.

J.L.B. said...

Mr. Lynch,

You've metnioned Rachel Carson's imagination several times. I don't usually think of scientists using, or allowing themselves to use, their imagination in what they write. Imagination suggests fantasy and the perception is that there's a big line between what is fantasy and what is scientific fact. Could you elaborate on how imagination serves scientific writing?

Jim Lynch said...

Thank you for all your interesting and thoughtful comments.

Thanks for the night tidepooling recollection. One of the more unorthodox reviews of my novel suggested that it be given as a gift along with a headlamp and waders.

I'll look for that National Geographic article, but my quick take on the subject is that it is absurd and unfair to try to blame modern malaria deaths on work Rachel Carson did forty-five years ago. Her point with "Silent Spring" was that indiscriminate use of pesticides was dangerous to all life. And she was right.

Good question. When I was using the word imagination I wasn't thinking fantasy, but I could see how it could be interpreted that way. What I meant by it is just that she uses all her skills -- her research and observatory powers, her precise and engaging prose, and yes, her imagination. For example, she takes the facts and the speculation and she paints a word picture that allows us to visualize underwater canyons and mountain ranges that she herself has never seen. And perhaps part of what I'm trying to say is that her style of explaining complex things engages the reader's imagination -- at least mine -- and helps the material come alive and become more than dry facts on a page. And while she takes more liberties in description and explanation than many scientists are comfortable with, I don't believe it compromises her scientific objectivity or integrity. It broadens her audience and makes her books more memorable.

Anonymous said...

As a scientist myself, I am usually moved to frustration when I hear people criticize Carson for stepping past her boundaries as a scientist by employing her creativity and figurative license in her writing. I have never thought of her writing as doing anything but drawing clear pictures for the reader to relate to. In my opinion, Carson strength lies in her ability to engage readers in her writing through creative prose. She asks the reader to relate to and identify with the topics she presents by drawing on their own past experiences, however varied, and by appealing to their own senses, their own logic, and in the end to their own responsibilities as citizens.

Carson (as a scientist and writer) intended to share her observations, her research questions, and data analysis with her audience by appealing to their own previous experiences and their own personal viewpoints. What is perhaps frustrating to some people is that Carson did not intend for them to follow her analysis and conclusions automatically without hesitation just because she said it was so. Instead, I believe that Carson, in her unique way, wanted readers to ask their own questions, do their own analysis, and draw their own conclusions - as science should be done.

Nonetheless her clarity of expression, the powerful imagery that she employs through the written word, and her effective use of logical connection not only entice her readers to “read-on” but ultimately entice them to re-evaluate their own observations. In many cases her readers are also moved to re-evaluate their own analysis and conclusions, and yes to re-think their own positions - something that is imperative is science - yet contrary to human nature. So, what is so powerful then about Rachel Carson's writing? To me as a scientist, I feel that her writing requires many people face head on an internal conflict about whether to reconsider their own previously accepted "truths" in favor of those of others which is something that is fundamentally hard to accept. For many people it is easier to fight outwardly than inwardly.

So when I hear comments like, “millions die of malaria because of Carson...” I am angered and I am moved to do something. Talk about an illogical, argumentative, unscientific conclusion that reeks of alternative influence and yet another attempt to discredit someone and pull the proverbial wool over the eyes of the layperson!

Come on! We need people like Carson to take the time to break down complex problems, show the observations, ask the research questions, present the hypotheses, do the data analyses, and draw the logical conclusions. Not so we just accept those conclusions – but so we ourselves can participate in the scientific process and draw the same conclusions when presented with the facts in a way that we can follow and understand. Perhaps this is why the Nobel Prize went to Al Gore?

In our fast paced world, we as citizens force scientists, politicians, and journalists to take the meat and potatoes out of the pot roast. We ask them to boil it down to the juicy gravy, and spoon feed the conclusions to us. I wonder why? Is it because we see the whole process as so overwhelming? Is it above our intellect? Or is it just boring? Why should we care about all the ingredients that go into making a good pot roast? Why would we care about the history of the cow, its health, and diet? Why would we care about the seasonings or any vegetables in the recipe? Please ask Rachel Ray or Emeril why just sending the recipe card doesn’t cut it!!! It has to be fun, it has to be interactive, it has to draw people in, in a way that they can relate to.

Most of us scientists, as good as we are at what research we do, are not capable or willing to cross or mix natural science with the humanities or social sciences. Is it because we lack training? Do we have political reservations? Is our introverted nature to blame? Do we lack the ability or desire to be expressive, creative, or intriguing? Are we boring individuals? Regardless of the answers to these questions, I think we hold ourselves back and we have no one to blame but ourselves. Millions die at the hands of Carson… how about… Millions die from inept scientists who can’t tell their stories!

Julian's blog said...

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Loved your site...
Since you mention some topics related to my own blog action tribute...you may want to check it out!
A book may be on the way!

J.L.B. said...

Mr. Lynch,

Thanks for elaborating on what you meant by imagination. You are so right about her descriptions helping the reader visualize almost unimaginable things. I was really taken with the description about the formation of the moon. The idea of a not-quite-solidified earth undulating in waves so huge that a part of the earth broke off and went hurtling through space is very hard to imagine until you can somewhat picture it. And once you can picture it, you're likely to remember it well.

jeremiah said...

I appreciated hearing Anonymous's point of view as a scientist. To judge Rachel Carson only in terms of DDT is like judging a trip to the Amazon jungle only in terms of poisonous snakes. In each case, there's a much bigger picture to consider that puts things in a more balanced perspective. It's probably fair to say that most of Rachel Carson's critics have not even read her books.

Chris Bassoo said...

Posted by Christopher Bassoo, Canada

I wanted to thank you for the informative and enjoyable read. I have been sitting here with my coffee and laptop enjoying a Bassoo family evening. Again many thanks, warmest of regards Chris Bassoo, Toronto, Canada

Jim Lynch said...

It may be time to start your own blog if you haven't already. You raised and answered an important flurry of questions and astutely described the nuances of Rachel's artful and surgical communication. Thanks for jumping in with all that.

Julesjm said...

With the hustle and bustle of the world around us it is very easy to walk through life with tunnel vision; seeing only those things that have deadlines and are crucial. Attending the Alternative Fall Break trip with Shippensburg University allowed me to slow down and take note of my surroundings. One of the most compelling things I saw while on this trip is how much life surrounds us and how much we as humans can effect these tiny lives.

There is literally some form of life everywhere I looked! I helped with the marsh restoration and clean up, and as we were walking through the knee high grass I was astonished at the number of crabs scurrying through the grass! Everywhere you looked there was movement! While we walked to the lighthouse we were inundated by mosquitoes and flies. While these are pesky little bugs that we do not necessarily like, they are still alive, and everywhere! Even in the ocean, you can see the remnants of shells covering the sand. This again is signs of the extreme life in the ocean.

I began to think, how much more life would exist if habitats would not have been destroyed? We as humans have a large responsibility to those tiny life forms that surround us. We sometimes can become so bogged down by the daily grind that we forget about those lives around us. This trip brought my life back into perspective. My life is such a small part of the world, but at the same time my actions can have an effect on life forms much smaller than mine.

Barb said...

speaking of tunnel vision reminds me of a sad story I heard recently. A single mom wanted her two kids to have opportunities to play out in nature and so she joined a group of neighborhood families who get together to go on outings. The first outing was planned to go to the ocean which sounded just like the kind of thing the mom was hoping to do. The group carpooled in a couple of vans and drove to the ocean. There was a section of the beach where cars are allowed to drive on, and so they drove on the beach next to the shoreline. The mom asked when they were going to stop so the kids could get out and play. She was told that they don't let the kids get out because they'd get too dirty in the sand and the water might be too cold for them. The mom was floored. Obviously these people were so disconnected from nature that they could only relate to it as something that makes you dirty and uncomfortable. Those poor kids!

At least there's a happy ending to the story. The next week the mom went back to the beach on her own and let her kids 'play till they dropped'. She took them home sandy, muddy, soaked and tired.

Jim Lynch said...

Nice to hear about all the life you saw. That's what always amazes me about tidepooling. If you slow down and look in one tiny pool you realize half the snails are actually hermit crabs wearing snail shells and half of what looks like plants are actually animals, etc. But you're right, the key is slowing down and being aware and present.

And Barb,
I think your story is increasingly and disturbingly common. A provocative book came out a couple years ago called "The Last Child in the Woods" by Richard Louv. His premise was that children today are too often suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder. And that instead of feeding them ritalin we should be leading them into nature. It rings true to me because the closer you look at nature the more fascinating it gets, which in essence rewards patience and concentration.

snowman said...

Oh my, what a wonderful legacy...millions dead of malaria world wide. All because of a moonbat crying "the sky is falling."

Some legacy.

Shame on you.

Kent Madison said...

Bravo Anonymous. What I liked most about your comments is that you took the time to make them. One of the main problems we have nowadays is that we don't take enough time. This is also why we don't notice the world around us any more. We want everything instantly.

Rivier College Republicans said...

Another interesting view on global warming...


juandos said...

Hmmm, are there any books showing that those who followed through with Rachel Carson's delusional grip on reality are directly responsible for the millions of deaths due to mosquito borne diseases?

Just asking...

Anonymous said...

Although this is slightly off the topic at hand in discussion of The Sea Around Us - I am amazed actually at how the message of this wonderful book is lost by so many people as is evident in comments posted in this blog including:

....."moonbat crying "the sky is falling.""

"delusional grip on reality"

What I said before, is that we have to ask the right questions and work through the details to draw logical conclusions ourselves. We see time and time again that most people suffer from Jerry Springeritis. They jump to conclusions and come out swinging before they see any real data.

Do a little reading and research about DDT and its environmental fate and do a little research about what Carson advocated for which was selective use not indiscriminant use.

Sure lots has been learned about DDT since she wrote her book. However, Carson knew that DDT was bio-accumulating in that it moves through food chains stored in fatty tissues that are consumed by predators like many POP's (persistent organic pollutants including some very lethal ones). She also knew that since DDT was indiscriminately used on many insect populations (and not just the target species) many beneficial insects were being decimated, and that many of the predators up the food chain were accumulating these materials in their tissues - thus impacting their health and ability to metabolize and reproduce effectively... i.e. the story of the Bald Eagle.

In this book, The Sea Around Us, written before her studies on DDT, Carson helps us to establish our linkage with the global ocean. The vast insurmountable, never ending oceans are not so vast, they are not so limitless and what goes into that big sloshing bucket of water has to come out. Everything in the ocean is connected and tied together. It is tied together from the smallest picoplankton and bacteria to the largest whales. It is also very much tied to us just as much as we are tied to it for food, transportation, natural resources, recreation, and in fact our very survival. A wonderful read for those who have not read it before is Osha Gray Davidsons book The Enchanted Braid - which explores this very concept.

Thus it is not surprising to me that Carson, after having studied and written books like The Sea Around Us, became a advocate of making informed, well thought out, and prudent decisions when it comes to the use of synthetic compounds and pesticides that are not well understood or studied.

"Moonbat," "Delusional... reality" Come on! Take a few moments and think about reality. Would you really want someone to spray a chemical compound on your lawn, in your house, or anywhere around the fields or barns where the food that your children eat comes from if you don't know that it IS safe? That it doesn't have any health risks? I am sure you would fall on the cautionary side as did Carson.

Thanks to Carson's questions we now have a group of people who are willing to ask the tough questions so that my children will have a tide pool to play in. Moreover, there is hope that generations of children will have barnacles to watch out for, fiddler crabs to seek out, or grunion and shad to watch wriggling and writhing in the surf as they struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Ian D. said...

Nancy Pollot said...
Ian, in response to the question you raise, I would refer you to some previous posts on this blog, in April and in May. There you will find that interesting topic discussed at some length. Please go to the Archives (scroll all the way down under the photo of Rachel Carson) and click on April, then go to the Comments section for April 26. For May, go to the Comments for May 1.

October 15, 2007 3:47 PM

Thanks Nancy, I will!

Jess said...

Mr. Lynch, you mentioned in your blog that no journalist can write as Rachel Carson did. As a beginning journalist, I, too, find it difficult to explain the complexity of the maths and sciences to a general audience. Not only do you lose that complexity in a newspaper story, but you also lose the eloquence that Rachel Carson articulates so well in her work. Journalists are taught to be objective and always show two sides to a story, but, one cannot be passive in order to save the environment. Rachel Carson wrote to persuade her audiences to do something about the current condition of the earth. The very last words of her chapter, "The Global Thermostat," in The Sea Around Us, she writes, "... the pendulum is swinging." It reminds readers that each second is valuable. Whether or not we decide to turn off the TV in the next five minutes, could have a 100+ year impact on the Earth. What the journalists couldn't say in the 1950s, Rachel Carson did, by the terminology she used and her encouragement of activism.

Jim Lynch said...

Thanks for your thoughts. You raise some good points. But I think one problem you touch on is that journalists are taught to tell both sides of the story TO A FAULT. For example, this whole global warming issue was dealt with for years as if there were two equal sides to the story. Well, it's pretty clear by now that there is no disputing that man is playing a role in the warming of the planet. Yet for years, journalists were uneasy about saying anything along those lines and kept calling on the skeptics who with little if any scientific grounding were claiming that this was just one big sky-is-falling ruse. Good journalism goes beyond telling both sides of the story and objectively pursues the truth. It's not as easy. It draws way more heat. But especially on the bigger stories of our day, I think it needs to be done.

Amy Harmon said...

As I read The Sea Around Us, I truly appreciated Carson's writing style. Not being a "science person" I was still able to appreciate her scientific findings. I was really interested in her chapter that dealt with the changing seasons and how they affect the sea. I had always thought of the sea as something completely unassociated with the land - like when you're at the beach and you go completely under water... you don't hear or see people laughing and talking anymore. All you hear is the water surrounding your ears. You feel completely separated from reality. It is like an entirely different world.
I never thought of how the sea has seasons and cycles too. Humans are destroying this beautiful feature of the world and disrupting its precious balance. It took this book to show me that the ocean changes with the land and more importantly what we do on land changes the ocean.

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