Skip to main content

A Farewell to Ice - Peter Wadhams ***

This is a really important book from a highly experienced researcher on the Arctic ice and the impact of climate change - but it falls down as popular science. A lot of material in the introductory chapters feels far too much like the early parts of a textbook. Eskimos may not really have vast numbers of words for snow (the claim seems to be based more on the word formation processes of different languages, not word count), but ice scientists clearly have all sorts of different words for ice types and formations and Wadhams feels the need to define them all, even though most will never be seen again. It doesn't help get the message across, it gets in the way.
The other big problem is that Wadhams clearly has very little idea of the knowledge level of non-scientists - so, for example, he makes the remark 'the Fourier series, by which any function can be split into a set of harmonics' without thinking through that anyone who knows what a function being split into harmonics involves, probably knows about Fourier analysis - it's a non-definition.
Part way through the book, we read about the author's experience of being on a submarine under the Arctic ice when an explosion killed two sailors and put everyone's life at risk. Never have I seen a better example of the importance of narrative in non-fiction. Suddenly, the whole book comes alive. But sadly this section is labelled a 'personal interlude' and in a few pages we are back to dryly related facts. I am not saying that all the book had to be based on personal experience (I generally find science books like this slightly nauseating), it's just that the author needs to be aware throughout that he is telling a story, shaping the way information is put across, and this just doesn't happen elsewhere. 
The message of A Farewell to Ice, though not new, is indeed very important. There is zero doubt the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes warming (along with other greenhouse gasses). It isn't about consensus, as Wadhams clearly shows, it is basic physics. There is also zero doubt that human activity has raised the greenhouse gas levels. The only doubt is over how fast and to what degree (literally) the warming will occur - but with the unique insight that Wadhams brings from his work with Arctic ice, we have good evidence that it is likely to be a problem sooner rather than later. The sad thing is, though, that without the kind of engaging writing seen briefly in that interlude, the only audience listening to this preaching will be those who are already converted.
This a shame, because there is still a lot of good stuff here. The other place the book comes alive is in the last few pages, where the author makes an appeal to do more about climate change - but by then, many readers might have turned off. Wadhams berates 'green' organisations like Greenpeace for opposing two  potential tools - nuclear power and geoengineering. He makes it very clear that it simply isn't enough to reduce carbon emissions. It's too late for that alone to do the job. We have to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere. And Wadhams also emphasises that current technology is nowhere near good enough - we need a Manhattan Project scale effort. But such an effort is likely to come when we are feeling the delayed effects much more, and when many millions are suffering or dying. I perhaps shouldn't criticise Wadhams' book, as it will still provide ammunition for thinking environmentalists (as opposed to knee-jerk greens) - I just wish the bulk of the book put the message across better. 
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. Excellent review. The book obviously has an important message (that climate change is happening in the arctic a lot faster than most people realize, and that it will have a major impact on warming), and especially so because he backs up everything with a great deal of real data, not just computer models. BUT it is a book for scientists and the converted, and not an easy read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks - as you say, it is a book for scientists and the converted, but I don't think that was the intention, which is why it was a missed opportunity.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

Euler's Pioneering Equation - Robin Wilson ***

The concept of a 'beautiful equation' is a mystery to many, but it seems to combine a piece of mathematics that expresses something sophisticated in relatively few terms and something that looks satisfying. The equation that has proved standout amongst mathematicians, as by far the most beautiful (and is only placed second to Maxwell's equation amongst physicists) is Euler's remarkable eiπ+1 = 0. What seems remarkable to me about this is that it just seems bizarre that this combination of things produces such a neat result. (Incidentally, as far as I can see, the only reason for the 'pioneering' in the title was to enable the fancy graphic on the cover of the book.)

Getting popular maths books right is incredibly difficult. When I started reading this book, I really thought that Robin Wilson had cracked it. After an introduction, he gives us a chapter on each of the elements of the equation (except the plus and equals signs), from the more basic aspects like 1 a…