Non-Fiction Reviews


Ocean Worlds
The story of seas on Earth and other planets

(2014) Jan Zalasiewicz & Mark Williams, Oxford University Press, 20 / US$29.95, hrdbk, vii + 294pp, ISBN 978-0-199-67288-2

 

Our planet is roughly two-thirds water, and water is a vital component of life: it is life's solvent. Indeed, if you approach our planet towards the Pacific hemisphere, as denoted by this book's back cover, our world seems to be almost completely dominated by ocean. Oceans are not trivial; they are intrinsically important.

Now, there have been loads of books on oceans and seas. Indeed, a few stops down the rail line from where I used to live is the Greenwich Maritime Museum which also houses a huge library solely devoted to things maritime. Then again, how many of the major universities run entire oceanography degrees let alone other courses be they biology, geography or environmental that include a marine-related module or two?

To the scientist interested in science fiction this is a doubly interesting a book. We are folk who have and enjoy a sense-of-wonder (sensawunda); who delight in crossing horizons and exploring new worlds; and who are happy to peer over the fence at our peers' specialist subjects to see what they are up to (perhaps even a little fearful that their disciplines' discoveries are more fascinating/meaningful/relevant than our own). And of course science fiction has more than its fair share of water worlds, inexorably rising seas, marine monsters and voyages from many, and not least the genre giants of past (be they Verne, Wyndham or Ballard) to present notables (such as Miéville and Baxter).

Yet invariably, arguably because oceans are so important and our relationships with them complex and many, we tend to focus on just a few dimensions be they to do with shipping, marine conservation, naval battles or whatever. We very rarely take a step back and look at oceans in the bigger scheme of things: How did they originate? What is special about the stuff of which they are made? How do they function? How long will they last? Are oceans on the Earth unique (and if not what are oceans like elsewhere)?

Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams is one of the few who have taken that step back to look at the vastly bigger picture. And it is truly a big picture whose canvas is literally cosmological.

Their narrative begins, and ends, in the cosmos. The former looking at how common is water in the universe (which puts paid to the sci-fi nonsense of aliens coming to seal our water [Oblivion etc.]). The latter contemplating oceans beyond our Solar system.

Along the way we learn about: water's unique molecular properties; how the Earth's oceans formed; what this salt water business is all about (and questions such as whether the Earth's oceans are getting saltier); oceans as dynamic bodies of water; life; and the current state of the oceans.

This is a journey that brings in: astronomy, geology, cosmology, biology, geography, chemistry, environmental science, physics and not mentioning more specialist disciplines. Having said that, the perspective the authors most take is that of Earth system science (what used to briefly be called biosphere science) which is the study of the way our world (hence by implications others like ours) works. Earth system science is itself a spin-off of geology (an accident of human academic history as it could equally have been environmental science or a couple of other disciplines that fathered this approach). It being a spin-off of geology is most relevant to the authors as both Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams are geologists based at Leicester University. Here the authors are conscious that their expertise (while strong in geology and Earth systems) might not be so accomplished in other areas such as astronomy. However, given that they have the daunting task of having to distil down a huge volume of academic understanding they seem to have done a commendable job. (The only significant error I found was that (p17) they say that the Earth's water could be rolled into a ball a little under 1.400 kilometres across. Actually they meant 1,400 km (or 1 400 km). But this is a typo, and virtually all books have them. Be assured that by and large the authors have done a commendable job.

The book's writing style is suitably cross-disciplinary: that is to say that you do not need an in-depth knowledge of geology (or chemistry or anything) to come to grips with it. If you enjoy popular science books or programmes like Horizon and The Sky at Night then you will be well away. For those who like a slightly richer science diet, there is an appendix of academic references at the back. For those into SF there are a few SFnal references including Robert E. Howard, Edgar Allen Poe, Kurt Vonnegut and even sci-fi's Star Trek gets a mention. Of course the authors have popular science writing form and their previous joint works include The Goldilocks Planet. And if you liked that then you will certainly enjoy this. Recommended.

Jonathan Cowie


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