The first draft of my “Planets” chapter had an entirely different opening. I originally backed my way into talking about planets by listing three scientific discoveries or consenses (consensuses?) that shock me with their newness: Birds are dinosaurs, plate tectonics, the discovery of exoplanets. Wait, here, I can share it with you:
There are a handful of scientific discoveries that amaze me with their newness. They’re not even discoveries, really—nothing so sudden—more like arrivals at consensus. I remember seeing Jurassic Park in the theater when I was ten years old, and at the movie’s end—once little Jaime had returned to her seat after watching the last Velociraptor fight through the swinging doors at the back of the theater, once the humans have escaped—Dr. Alan Grant cradles a sleeping Tim (that’s the little boy, I didn’t remember his name either) against his chest and watches out the helicopter window as a flock of pelicans skims over the peaceful ocean. The same orchestral motif that scored the reveal of the brachiosaurus TK minutes earlier swells, a bit more gently, as a pelican stretches its wings for a moment and glides. I remember the thrill rising up in me—they’re saying dinosaurs are birds! Earlier in the movie, Dr. Grant had advanced that hypothesis, but in 1993 it was still a contentious stance to take. But here, with its final image, the movie was endorsing this view. Even as the few surviving humans flew to safety, there were still dinosaurs out in the world. (And then, of course, in the sequels, there would be the old kind of dinosaurs still in the world, too.)
(Sidebar: I use that TK as an example in all of my writing classes. At some point I’d need to fire up Jurassic Park and count the minutes, something I did NOT want to do in the midst of drafting because it would take me out of the flow of writing, and probably sidetrack me into watching a lot more of the movie than I needed. So I didn’t worry about it since the number didn’t matter, and sure enough the whole paragraph got cut before I ever got around to figuring it out!)
They live in a trio in my head, dinosaurs, exoplanets, plate tectonics. But I know markedly less, especially in terms of discovery, about the last. So in my most recent bout of asking the internet what science/nature audiobook I should listen to next, The Great Quake won for its promise of filling that gap.
I was dubious, though. It opens with a lot about the (Americanizing) history of Alaska. It tells the story of the Good Friday earthquake of 1964, an event I’ll admit I hadn’t known about before, not only as the catalyst for the figuring-out of plate tectonics, but as you can tell from the title as the star of the show. We learn about the growth of cities and Alaskan culture and a schoolteacher assigned to a tiny, far-flung town. Then also a bunch of geologists, and ugh do I need another book about dudes making discoveries?
This book is fucking brilliant. I don’t know how to talk about it other than to gush. It’s fascinating and humane—the chapter that describes the quake itself, right in the middle of the book, is a tremendous payoff of everything that came before it, each character introduced and each town map described coming together in something that would be symphonic if it weren’t so sensitive and intimate. Each life lost or transformed was deeply honored, yet the scale of the event was never lost. I sobbed while listening (the audiobook is amazing), not only during the quake chapter but in a moment of geology research scene-setting in the epilogue, too. I laughed plenty of times, also—the book can be miraculously light in moments, without detracting from its gravity. And yes the science is extremely cool. And yes, I cared about the men who did it. It’s not a Great Men of Science story, after all. Just a human story, in so many ways, including humans trying to understand the impenetrable Earth.
I never got around to writing about my previous five-star science/nature audiobook, but if you’re more into mushrooms than geology, I absolutely adored Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, so give that a look or listen.
(Those are both affiliate links, so if you purchase that way I’ll make a few cents.)
Now it’s time to remind you (or tell you for the first time?) that Weds 5/24 (tomorrow as I’m sending this) at 6:30pm you can tune in for my Science Friday Book Club event:
Remember in how my last newsletter I wrote about the deadening feeling of turning into a soundbite machine? I’ve been really happy to do a few interviews lately that are not like that. If you’d like to listen:
(I loved recording this so I wan’t begrudge them this still… okay wait yes I will. That’s the best my face did?? You can avoid my face doing all that by listening to Off-Nominal as a podcast.)
If live events are more your speed, all I can say is: New Yorkers, hold the evening of June 12, more soon.
This book sounds great...and so does yours! I'm excited to read it--going to order a copy RIGHT NOW.