"Someone once called me a pagophile," Mariana Gosnell writes midway through this erudite doorstopper of a book on everything one...
“Ice: The Nature, the History and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance”
by Mariana Gosnell
Knopf, 560 pp., $30
“Someone once called me a pagophile,” Mariana Gosnell writes midway through this erudite doorstopper of a book on everything one could possibly want to know about frozen water.
Pagophile is Greek for lover of ice, and Gosnell, a former Newsweek science reporter and author of a previous book on flying solo across America in a small plane, is certainly that.
From the opening pages of “Ice,” where her eye suddenly rests on an ice cube floating in a glass of iced tea and is mesmerized, to the end, where she takes us out into the frozen wastes of space, Gosnell discusses everything from lake ice to glaciers, polar bears to penguins, igloos to ice boxes.
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She delves first into ice formation on the surfaces of lakes and rivers. She then tackles the complex subject of glaciers, whether they be in the Alps, Peru or Greenland, before moving on to sea ice, icebergs and permafrost.
“Ice” offers some sobering facts about how the melting of the glaciers and the disappearance of polar ice, especially in the Arctic, will affect us all.
Although Gosnell is no hysterical alarmist, it’s difficult not to rustle nervously in one’s armchair when she discusses what could happen if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, with its 7 million cubic miles of ice, were to collapse because of global warming. Suffice it to say that ballot counting in Florida would no longer be a problem.
Gosnell makes everything about ice intriguing. It’s hard to imagine much new could be said about the Titanic disaster, until one looks at it from the point of view of an iceberg. Some of the most interesting chapters have to do with animals and people — how they’ve adapted, or not, to frozen conditions.
For humans who can’t tolerate much change in temperature, extreme cold has often spelled death. But cold can be fun, too: Without ice there’d be no ice skating, hockey, ice castles and sleigh rides. Ice has also been put to numerous uses in food safety, medicine and scientific investigations that improve our lives.
Organs on ice can be kept for some hours before being reattached or implanted. And there’s always cryopreservation for those who can’t bear to give up their earthly form for good, and have signed up to be “deanimated” at temperatures of minus 320° F when they die.
As a former journalist, Gosnell seamlessly weaves into her text scores of interviews with scientists in quotes that punctuate, amuse and never overwhelm. She’s equally well-read when it comes to scientific papers on “The Laboratory Simulation of Needle Ice” and the literature of the great expeditions to the poles.
Her bibliography is pages of fascinating reading in itself. Her technical explanations — at least for this reader, apt to tune out whenever the words “molecular structure” turn up — are conveyed with ease and authority.
My one quibble is an overuse of poetry between paragraphs, perhaps to break up the solidity of the information.
The author is an engaging writer with fine descriptive powers:
“Sound is where ice-as-living-creature similes are most convincing. Ice groans, bangs, squeaks, booms, whoops, grunts, thuds, gulps, and clunks. Over the winter I hear the noises of seals crying, trains rumbling, and wound-up springs unwinding (boinggg!). I listen to the murmur of a dinner-table conversation on the other side of a wall.”
With such powers of description, there’s no reason for Gosnell to resort so frequently to poetry fragments, though their plenitude does have the effect of emphasizing that apparently everyone, from Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath, has used ice as a metaphor.
“Ice” is packed with the kind of facts that can make one a dinner-party sensation. It’s perhaps best read on a cold winter evening, with the central heating on and fingers crossed that the West Antarctic Ice Shelf keeps its icy structure for a long while.