Book Review: The Universe Below: Discovering the Secrets of the Deep Sea

By William J. Broad, with wonderfully evocative illustrations by Dimitry Schidlovsky

My blog is called “Blue Marble Earth” instead of “Greenish-Brown Marble Earth” for a reason – our oceans are the most distinctive feature of the planet as seen from space. There’s something about the deep seas that fascinates even the least scientific of people. Whether it’s the alien mutants spewing from the mid-ocean ridges in “Pacific Rim”, Cthulhu seducing unwilling mortals in the southern depths, the morbidly fascinating ruins of the Titanic, or legends of the giant squid, there’s something for everyone down there.

A geologist, biologist, or geographer can easily find themselves hyperventilating at the thought of so much undiscovered life and oddity. The untold number of PhD thesis opportunities! The grant money based on Cold War fears and subliminal sci-fi movie messages! The only problem is getting to that watery 71% averaging two miles deep; even our most accomplished divers can’t get much past 350 feet. We’re slowly peeling back layers of mystery and “here be monsters”, thanks to deep-sea missions and the delightful availability of Google Earth. Broad weaves a richly textured story out of the progress of deep-sea exploration, including the awkward transition of vessels from Cold-War skullduggery to cutting-edge science. Probably in no other field, besides particle physics, is scientific progress concentrated through so few tools –the American Alvin, French Nautile, Japanese Shinkai, Russian Mir 1 and Mir 2, and now James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger are our only tools for braving the icy, mutilating pressure of the deepest reaches of the sea.

Much of what makes The Universe Below so compelling is the fact that Broad has the phenomenal opportunity to go out on missions and dives in those rare vessels to witness the messy progress of science firsthand. Through him, the reader meets biologists, oceanographers, archaeologists, and businessmen and learns their quirks, motivations, and ship-board traditions. The cumulative passion for discovery leaps from every page. The tone of the book teeters on the edge between true popular science and the casual literature tailored for an expert’s bedtime reading. In particular, the second and third chapters are lighter on the personal anecdotes and illustrations and heavier on the military history, which could cause some readers to zone out. Cold War buffs, however, will relish them. Nerdy as I am, I found them fascinating but needing a second read-through to understand the bigger picture. To quote Bruce E. Robison of the ground-breaking Monterey Bay Aquatic Research Center (MBARI), extensively featured in the book,

“If an alien civilization came to look at the dominant life form on the planet, they’d be looking at the midwater creatures. In terms of biomass, numbers of individuals, geographical extent – any way you slice it – these are the biggest ecological entities on Earth. But we know virtually nothing about them”

And, not surprisingly, he’s hoping to fix that. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Monterey Bay Aquarium that supports his research– it was the place where my parents first discovered when I was six that no, budgeting two hours for a museum would not fly. We were ushered out 30 minutes after closing time, after spending nearly eight hours there. I was enthralled by the wild variety of sea creatures, but didn’t yet understand that their home was an undersea crevasse deeper than the Grand Canyon. Real-life alien sea creatures in the Monterey Canyon, according to The Universe Below:

  • Praya the giant 130-foot long siphonophore, a translucent chain of carnivorous blobs.
  • The dramatically named Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, a squid named for its cape-like membranes stretched between its tentacles and the two fang-like protrusions. It’s really quite harmless to human jugulars, and has lovely creepy blue eyes. Even cooler than its name is that fact that it’s a living fossil from before cephalopods evolved into squids and octopi in the Late Jurassic, 140 million years ago. (in image to the right)
  • Scopelarchid, a fish with long, tubular telescopic eyes that point straight up, all the better to see the dim luminescence of the small siphonophores it eats. Dissection reveals that each eye has twin retinas, one close to the large lens and the other further away, allowing it two different levels of “zoom”.

Unfortunately these creatures, accustomed to the moderate pressure of the mid-layers of the oceans, disintegrate when netted and brought to the surface. They won’t be on view in the aquarium anytime soon.

Also when I was six, America was gripped by Titanic-Mania. Leonardo deCaprio was the sweetheart of the 5th-graders at my school, I was introduced to the idea of icebergs, and a sinking-related children’s book was directly responsible for the existence of my favorite plush bear. In a reaction to the unbridled melodramatic hysteria, the Pink Palace Museum screened a more objective 1993 Titanic documentary which was the first IMAX I ever saw. I had a small breakdown when the camera focused on a discarded teddy bear amid the rusticles, which I found unbearably creepy. The Universe Below narrates the sensationalism of the exploitation of the wreck with humor, as well as introducing the reader to several other salvage operations from the Azores to the Sea of Japan in search of valuable sunken cargo.

Broad then continues seamlessly into the thorny economic issues of deep-sea mineral recovery, fishing, nuclear waste disposal of the NIMBY variety, and the international treaties and conflicts that ensue. Did you know that Germany tried to extract gold from seawater in order to pay back the massive reparations after World War One? Armed with the knowledge that each cubic mile of seawater contains about 40 pounds of gold. Fritz Haber, whose eponymous Haber Process of extracting nitrogen from the atmosphere allowed Germany to continue making ammunitions despite a lack of imports, was set to that quixotic and desperate plan. What they underestimated the importance of in this case was that 1 cubic mile of seawater also contains roughly 10 trillion pounds of seawater. I had no idea that, between 1946 and 1970, the US dumped 47,000 unshielded barrels of nuclear waste offshore of the Farallones, near San Francisco. Out of sight, out of mind? The drums held roughly 15,000 curies of radioactivity – 300 times the amount that was released at Chernobyl, and consisting of isotopes with much longer half-lives – that is slowly leaking out as the barrels rust away. However, that’s small change compared to the Russian legacy of 2.5 million curies of radioactive waste dumped into the northern seas, near the world’s most productive fisheries, until 1993. As an environmental scientist, these figures make me cringe and lose my appetite for lunch. The ocean may seem almost unimaginably vast, but now more than ever humanity is capable of over-exploiting its powers of dilution and absorption. I wish that Broad had been able to go into more depth on the issues of CO2 absorption and temperature buffering in the deep oceans; he sketched out the save-the-whales lobby against a deep-ocean acoustical temperature survey, but did not mention the outcome. However, the book was published in 1997, before the second  big push of climate science, so I can’t really blame him for not assuaging my 2014 curiosity.

As someone who studied international economics and politics in college, I enjoyed the chance to learn more about the marine versions of terrestrial issues I was familiar with. Another reader might find those last chapters slightly drier, but bear with them – Broad uses the accumulated goodwill and wonder of the previous chapters to subtly involve the reader in questions of sustainability and the importance of science in public discourse. And don’t skip the epilogue!

Schidlovsky’s pen-and-ink drawings give the book a delightful Jules Verne flair, alternatively illustrating lush dioramas of sea creatures and edifying textbook-style maps, charts, and cross-sections. Universe Below IllustrationsThe Universe Below: Discovering the Secrets of the Deep Sea can be found on Amazon.com, and also at your local bookstore or library.

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