Antarctica is a distant land for most of us, except those who go there to work. I was reading on the continent for a project that I am involved in. A few pages into the book and I knew this was not really what I needed to read for my project. But the book was so gripping that I almost left everything that I was doing to read the book.
Author Gabrielle Walker is so good with her narrative even when her subject is literally as dry as Science in Antarctica. As someone who has made several trips to Antarctica, including some time at the South pole and spending a winter there, she is the best you can get to hear about the southern continent.
Gabrielle introduces you to the continent that most of us only remotely know about. She tells us about its eastern part that is usually accessed from New Zealand. The Antarctica Peninsula that most tourists end up visiting is on the western end and approached from Southern tip of South America. You can know the various stations of different countries that line across the edge of the continent.
Once you get the geography right, she slowly takes you through the stories of Antarctica. She starts with the history of men who first ventured into the continent. Driven primarily by their curiosity and sense of exploration. But not without a sense of rivalry. She tells you the extent of hardships they went through to open doors to this uninhabited part of the earth.
Buy Antarctica – An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent by Gabrielle Walker at Amazon
Gabrielle then takes you in and out of the different science programs that are exploring everything on the continent like its ice, its air, its water, its wildlife. She takes you to the place of action and then gives you a bit of background on the subject. The story is kept very human with real human being walking you to different parts of the continent, sometimes flying you.
While I expected the scientists to study the continent, I was amazed to learn that we are studying the skies from the remote corner in this continent. Where else would you get an absolutely pollution-free air? And a perfectly quiet environment to have a rendezvous with the stars? She takes you to the driest part on the continent that not just resembles Mars but also has debris from the space. Imagine sitting there among the pieces from the space.
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Imagine digging into the ice that is millions of years old or the air trapped into it that can give so many clues about our past.
Wait before you start romanticizing about the icy continent. She tells you the resilience it demands, the comfort with oneself it seeks and the tests it puts you through. At the other end, you also realize the fancy colonies humans have managed to create for its species in the middle of all the ice. The author does not touch the controversies and conflicts with respect to this continent. But then to be fair to her, she is focusing on the scientific research that is happening there.
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Working in Antartica
She, however, does try to get into the minds of those working there. Especially women who entered the continent pretty late. She talks not just to the accomplished scientists. But also to the workers who built and maintain the facilities. Like carpenters, people who clear the ice on an everyday basis. You get a glimpse of helicopters used to go from one place to another. My favorite part was her description of the south pole where she says you can cross all time zones in a jiffy.
The narrative is beautiful. It takes you to the place with the author holding your hand and makes you feel the place. Language is simple. When there was a potential danger of slipping into too much jargon, the author has managed to keep it as simple as possible for the lay reader.
Everyone who has been there felt that it makes you feel small and humble. Reading this book made me feel small and humble even without visiting the continent.
If science or Antarctica is something that interests you, do read this book.