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.