Over recent weeks, Nature’s Head of Press, Alice Henchley, has been reading and reviewing the books shortlisted for the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, at a rate of one every week. The winner will be announced at a public event at the Royal Society on the 25th November 2013 during which shortlisted authors will discuss their books with host Dara O Briain. Prior to the announcement, we’re been running a competition on Of Schemes and Memes to win a set of the shortlisted books – the winner of the prize draw will be announced soon!
As an authoritative overview of the sea and our relationship with it, I’d say Ocean of Life could be legitimately described as a magnum opus. The breadth of subject matter covered is truly extraordinary and the writing is exactly what one would hope for from a popular science book: eloquent, informative, accessible (without being dumbed down) and personally relevant. As well as being meticulously researched and referenced, Ocean of Life is extremely well illustrated, with numerous photographs, all with far more than just the odd desultory single line as a caption that so often accompanies such images.
Opening about four and a half billion years ago, Roberts describes the birth of the Earth and, from there, the formation of water and thus the oceans. From this he plunges into the evolution of life, circulation of elements, explosion of species diversity and, finally, the massive extinction at the end of the Permian period. All this features in the first chapter and each of the following 21 chapters is equally jam-packed. Roberts moves onto the oceans as a source of food, from ancient times to the present, and the catastrophic impacts of fisheries over the last century or so. He continues with a tragic catalogue of the wrongs we have done to the seas, from acidification to alien species (a list so extensive it is barely believable), and ways we might begin to put things right.
Unlike most of the books on the short list, Ocean of Life has a clear agenda. But this is no polemic and any anti-environmentalists should take note that they’re unlikely to get anywhere if they decide to take Roberts on. Whilst in another’s hands, the book could feel preachy, with Roberts at the helm it’s so well argued and backed up with such extensive examples and data, that it’s hard to see it as anything other than a rational set of conclusions. As the reader reaches the end of the book and the full extent of humanity’s impact on is laid out in its entirety, Roberts adds in some very useful advice for consumers. This guidance is very welcome, particularly if you realise, as I did, that your ethical purchasing may not be quite as sustainable as you had imagined.
This is one of very few books for which there do not seem to be enough superlatives. Vast in its scope and unwavering in its ambition, this is a truly extraordinary homage to the ocean.
You can read Stephen Palumbi’s Nature Books and Arts review of Ocean of Life here.
Alice Henchley has been Head of Press at Nature since the start of 2013. Prior to that she worked at the Royal Society and the Zoological Society of London, communicating everything from population policy to conservation of the world’s most extraordinary animals.