My rating: 5 of 5 stars
We heard Simon Winchester speak in Portland this winter. I agree with the man who introduced him: Forget about the guy in the beer commercial – Simon Winchester is the real most interesting man in the world. In a chapter about the Philippines he recounts (in a footnote) about a time when he and a friend climbed the mountain with a couple of guides: “As we neared the summit, a full gale blew up and the guides ran away in terror. The two of us pressed on, clambering the final few hundred feet to the crater lip on hour hands and knees, drenched by rain and pummeled by high winds. We later found our guides huddled in a cave, quite incapacitated by smoking so much marijuana that we were obliged to reverse roles and guide them down to safety.” [Loc 8388]
Simon Winchester has travelled extensively and studied exhaustively to bring up a fascinating book on the geography, history, politics, geology, weather, sociology, and more about this largest body of water (by far) on the planet. “The vast distances inherent in the Pacific’s geography have consequences seldom known elsewhere. Consider the Republic of Kiribati, for instance, once the British-run Gilbert Islands. Its one hundred thousand inhabitants are spread over fully 1.35 million square miles of ocean.” [Loc 565] Added to this the International Date Line runs through the ocean making people just hundreds of miles away operating on two completely different days.
Winchester picks 10 events that have occurred since 1950 to open a discussion on the myriad aspects of the ocean, and our world. “The future, in short, is what the Pacific Ocean is now coming to symbolize. For if one accepts that the Mediterranean was once the island sea of the Ancient World; and further, that the Atlantic Ocean was, and to some people still remains, the inland sea of the Modern World; then surely it can be argued that the Pacific Ocean is the inland sea of Tomorrow’s World.” [Loc 621]
The Pacific Ocean has been with us for millions of years so why pick 1950 as the starting point for this book? Because January 1, 1950 has been identified as the beginning of “Present Time”. Our current dating system, with its BC and AD nomenclature, is based on the birth of Christ – a person that the majority of the world don’t follow. But something happened in the 1950s that radically changed the baseline system of measurement of time – radio carbon dating. Knowing the half-life of the carbon-14 isotope means we can accurately determine the age of dead animal or plant by comparing the ratio of the stable carbon-12 isotope with its volatile cousin carbon-14. “But then came the unexpected. As soon as the testing of atomic bombs began in earnest in the 1950s, that baseline figure [ratio] suddenly began to change.” With a changing ratio, it becomes impossible to identify the age of something. “A date was chosen before which radiocarbon dating could be regarded as accurate, because the baseline was constant… And the date selected – of what is now known as the start of the standard reference year, or the Index Year – was January 1, 1950. Before January 1950 the atmosphere was radiochemically pure. After January 1950 it was sullied, fouled by bomb-created isotopes.” [Locs 80, 812].
From this introduction Winchester launches into a fascinating chapter on the H-Bomb testing era. With little thought about the well-being of the native inhabitants the United States moved island populations to terrible locations so we could test our bombs. He points out that “the native people have won precious few benefits from all the centuries of foreign attention. Critics claim, not unreasonably, that all that was brought by the years of foreign trespass in the Micronesian islands has been death, disease, and dependency; its residue remains, and it is not a pretty site. Particularly on the atoll knows as Kwajalein.”[Loc 469]
In other chapters Winchester takes up topics such as surfing, portable radios, North Korea (told through the story of the Pueblo Incident), huge typhoons, life at its depths, and China’s recent play to take control of vast portions of the ocean.
Typhoons and other storms in the Pacific Ocean are much more numerous and violent than in the other oceans. And they are getting worse. “The best explanation for why the Pacific storms are now more numerous and violent has much to do with the ocean’s vast size and, most crucially, with the near-unimaginable amount of heat that its waters collect from the sun.” [Loc 3794] He points out that En Niño has a see-saw pattern: “floods on one side of the ocean led to drought on the other.” [Loc 3885]. “[T]he Japanese team working on El Niño has been able to show that the onset … is often preceded by a machine-gun-like series of small and intense storms north of Australia… But as to whether they indicate the onset of an El Niño, or whether they are the result of the onset of an El Niño, is a matter of much debate in the meteorological community.”[Loc 3958]
He writes about the discovery of life near the hot vents at the bottom of the ocean far beyond the reach of the sun and photosynthesis. “Somehow these bacteria were manufacturing organic material (sustenance for the tube worms) out of inorganic building blocks. Making life, in other words, out of purely elemental whole cloth.”[Loc 4876] “It was a truly edge-of-your-seat scientific advance. Before this, the scientific community believed that all life ultimately demanded energy radiated from the sun, that the process of photosynthesis, in which light is an absolutely essential component, lay at the base of all living existence.” [Loc 4887]
Winchester also points out how a volcano eruption in the Philippines led to the departure of American forces from Subic Bay and Clark Air Force base which in turn led to China being able to increase it’s military and economic reach. I have heard of China establishing new islands and of America’s turning to a “Pacific First” strategy. This chapter is a great introduction on the why and how. “These days the planet is witnessing a sudden and wholesale redistribution of world power, on that is unprecedented inits speed. It is experiencing a shift in emphasis that suggest that this Western dominance, especially in the regions where such was both unquestioned and unquestionable, may now, and quite rapidly, be coming to an end.” [Loc 6244]
This book is epic in scope. The subtitle is: “Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers”In the wrong hands, this material could be dry and insufferable. But in Simon Winchester’s able hands we have an enjoyable journey through these remarkable topics.