- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2003


By Richard Corfield

Joseph Henry Press/National Academies Press, $24.95, 272 pages


To the good maxim “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” might be added that too much knowledge is also a peril — such is the case in this extraordinary book about the ocean floor by Oxford professor Richard Corfield.

There can be no doubt that Mr. Corfield knows about what he is writing — the remarkable mysteries of that unexplored majority of our world under the ocean. A few sentences like the following example will suffice: “Oxygen-isotope temperature measurements of foraminifera,” he writes, “agreed well with the fauna-abundance method of temperature determination near the tops of cores but as one went deeper, significant discrepancies began to appear.” Thanks, professor, as we say now, for sharing.

In fact Mr. Corfield knows so much about the ocean floor and exploration of same that he seems hell-bent on driving home point after point, no matter how difficult to understand or even to translate from lab-talk.

But it is the particular charm of “The Silent Landscape” that the wads of pure science can never quite bury what is a fascinating story, and a new one. The ocean floor has barely been probed by man; work over the next 100 years will undoubtedly double scientific knowledge of the planet’s structure and history, knowledge which is now locked in that deep, undisturbed library far beneath the waves.

Take the theory of continental drift — the idea that the land masses, apparently so solid, so terra firma, are themselves floating relatively free and moving all the time. As Mr. Corfield points out, and every schoolchild is told, the continents and the entire crust of the earth rides on a molten core not unlike molten lava. And where the masses meet and crash together, one slides under the other in accordance to certain laws. Luckily it is a process which takes hundreds of thousands of years.

One side of this book, then is a scientific treatise; the other is the history of the first truly modern attempt to gather data and check theories about the “silent landscape” of the oceanic floor, the 1872 Challenger voyage, a British government program, an historic first. The British sent out a small ship, peopled with scientists, equipped with tools, and manned by Navy sailors, to see what could be found of the floor of the world. The Challenger’s task, among others, was to try to prove or disprove Charles Darwin’s hypothesis “that contemporary life arose from more primitive ancestors.”

Challenger also assembled data still useful in the study of today’s hot topic, global warming, though the evidence is hardly as conclusive as adherents of the warming theory would like. Evidence from the glaciers of Antarctica and other information suggest that there have been a series of warming — and cooling — episodes in the long history of life on the planet, though the cause of each episode is not clear.

Darwin, of course, was right, and his famous voyage on HMS “Beagle” will always overshadow the “Challenger” exploration, even though it was “Challenger’s” accumulation of data that finally “Laid to rest the belief that secular questions can be answered by religion,” Mr. Corfield writes.

The linkage between these two stories - the first about the science of sub-aquatic exploration, the second being a narrative, written much like an expanded ship’s log, of the Challenger’s 69,000 mile, three and one half year voyage — is often abrupt and mannered, as if Corfield knew exactly how much science a reader could take before turning to the more hearty and human story of the men who sailed Challenger and their vicissitudes.

Challenger literally scoured the oceans of the world, using miles of piano wire and a small dredge to retrieve samples of the ocean floor at every navigable latitude. Using crude devices, the “scientifics” on board and the sailors labored to sample and catalogue every depth and condition of the seabottom. It was a work of incredible tedium, combined with unavoidable terrors,as the ship was struck by gales, threatened by icebergs, its crew weakened by desertions and deadly accidents.

The result, Mr. Corfield notes, was a mass or raw knowledge that laid the basis for most current continental theories, including such current subjects as plate tectonics, the discovery of vast undersea manganese deposits, climate change, warming theory and more. “In truth, its importance can hardly be exaggerated,” he concludes.

Yet the exploration of the ocean floor has never won the glamor of the exploration of space, even though it is clear that much more of immediate practical value to human life lies hidden under the water than in the void of the heavens. Result: a lively sense of jealousy and resentment between the two branches of science, with the undersea people grinding their teeth while government billions are spent to explore space.

This is not a new phenomenon, as Mr. Corfield points out. The massive report of the “Challenger” voyage, 50 volumes written by John Murray, the most famous of the scientists involved, would have remained unfinished as the British treasury had tired of funding it a few years after the voyage ended successfully. Murray soldiered on alone, supporting the publication with his own fortune — a fortune he made as a direct result of the voyage.

It turned out that Murray had noticed the high phosphate content of certain deposits in the Moluccas Islands. He acquired mineral rights and turned the deposits into fertilizer, and considerable wealth. On such twists and turns does the history of ocean science — and Mr. Cornfield’s unique telling of it — depend.

Duncan Spencer is a writer in Washington.

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