Monday, May 16, 2011

Chasing Science at Sea: Racing Hurricanes, Stalking Sharks, and Living Undersea With Ocean Experts, by Ellen Prager--A Review

University of Chicago Press, ISBN 9780226678719, May 2009

Prager has a noble purpose in this book: to convey the excitement and adventure of doing science, and specifically of doing ocean science fieldwork, through telling the stories of the experiences of ocean-going scientists. To a fair degree she succeeds, but not entirely. This feels more like a collection of anecdotes than a collection of stories--but some of them are, no question, great anecdotes! I'm reminded of Randy Olson's Don't Be Such a Scientist, in the sense that I would wonder if she had read it, and were working at applying his advice, except that her book was published first.

The book is arranged in thematic chapters, highlighting the challenges of ocean-going shipboard research, diving in coastal waters, the effects of weather in making hay of the best-laid plans, the benefits of serendipity and of direct observation in making critical discoveries that would elude remote observation using  ROVs and AUVs (remotely-operated vessels and autonomous underwater vessels)  to do deep ocean exploration and research, the joys and challenges of life in underwater habitats, and the sheer delight and wonder of seeing the undersea world first-hand.

Prager was previously the chief scientist for the Aquarius Reef Base program in Key Largo, Florida, which includes what is currently the world's only undersea research station. Some of her best tales include the challenges, dangers, and rewards of living in an undersea research station, able to dive and do active research for eight or nine hours a day. She also shares her own and other scientists' stories of surviving dangerous weather at sea on the ocean-going research ships of the Sea Education Association--hurricanes, waterspouts, sudden squalls, and even an encounter with pirates. There's a disarming honesty about the role played by simply human mistakes and errors in judgment in contributing to dangerous situations, as well as human ingenuity in surviving the dangers and recovering and doing useful research anyway. She seems to take a special glee in describing her own early experiences, including her own mistakes that sometimes placed herself and others in danger. Prager learned the hard way to check everything twice, including whether or not colleagues had actually done their part in the preparations.

On the other hand, she also learned the joy of making unexpected discoveries for herself, whether or not those discoveries proved to be ones that would move the science forward in a big way, and she talks about her passion for sharing that joy with students who may yet become scientists themselves. This is one of the two major things Prager is seeking to convey in this book: the joy, delight, and pure satisfaction of doing real fieldwork at sea.

The other major point she wants to convey is the importance of real fieldwork, the vital necessity of doing direct fieldwork to build a real understanding of the ocean that is three-quarters of the surface of our planet, a major source of both food and weather affecting us all. She and her colleagues are deeply worried about what essential knowledge we might miss, if the difficulties, expense, and dangers of underwater fieldwork cause us to cease doing it, and she returns again and again to this issue.

Recommended despite my reservations.

I received this ebook as a free download from the University of Chicago Press.