Sunday, April 10, 2005


Welcome to the Jungle

Today's San Francisco Chronicle reviews Brad Matsen's Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss:

The bathysphere's dives are pure drama. During the first descent, a shower of sparks from the electrical cable could easily have ignited the oxygen-rich atmosphere and roasted the divers. They made it 803 feet down into the violet-blue water, with conga lines of bioluminescent hatchet fish and "large, dark forms hovering just past the edge of the darkness" of their lanterns. The second dive, to 1,400 feet, revealed spectral auroras -- "galaxies of bioluminescent streaks flash across the windows in a submarine pyrotechnic display that was beyond belief" -- but also gave the men the shim-shams. Had the customized quartzite windows given way -- it had cracked in tests -- Beebe and Barton would have been riddled by the popping leaks as if by bullets.

The deepest dive was made under the expectant eyes of the National Geographic Society, which had ponied up $10,000 for a big story. Although the craft had shown signs of weakness during unmanned trial runs, Beebe and Barton made it down to an incredible 3,028 feet, broadcasting their descent live on NBC radio (and with a pathetic Barton vomiting during the rocky descent. Beebe to Barton: "Oh God, Otis, not now.").

Mentioned in passing in the review is the fact that William Beebe was the author of numerous popular books on nature -- although until I looked him up, I didn't realize just how many. Particularly intriguing sounding: one of his last titles, Unseen Life of New York: As a Naturalist Sees It (1953). It seems Beebe, after a lifetime of observing nature in the Antarctic, the Galapagos, and Bermuda, brought his binoculars and magnifying glass to bear upon Manhattan.

Though, as Bill Buford once pointed out in his 1998 New Yorker piece "Thy Neighbor's Life," telescopes also enjoy suspiciously strong sales in Manhattan -- even though you can't, um, see the stars very much there...

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