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A Voyage of Discovery in the Sea of Cortez

by Aaron Hirsh

Pub Date: Aug. 6th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-374-27284-5
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A look at what scientists do on their summer vacations, with hurricanes and sea cucumbers to break up the doldrums.

For the last decade, Hirsh and his wife, biologists at the University of Colorado, have led a field institute on the central coast of Baja California, the one facing not the wild, cold Pacific but the comparatively quiet Gulf of California (or Sea of Cortez, depending on whether you’re John Steinbeck or not). These handpicked students, Hirsh tells us, are brilliant, but they’re not without quirks that at times make us feel like stranding them on a panga without a paddle. Some are smart-alecky, some nerdy, some neo-hippieish. All are there, as far as this book is concerned, to serve didactic roles toward the students’ project: namely, to tell healing stories about damaged places, “the places we live and know [that] have been scorched and destroyed.” Hirsh and his scientific colleagues tell stories with a hard nose about such things as speciation, the CAM cycle and the tragedy of the commons. Sometimes these tales afford great scientific insight into the nature of things: as for whales, for instance, “the average number of generations we have to go back in time before two individuals share a female ancestor is (most likely) equal to the number of breeding females in the population.” Sometimes the tales are as arid as the landscape, donnish and remedial (“An element, you’ll recall, is a kind of atom, placed on the periodic table according to the number of protons it has in its nucleus”). Sometimes the stories reveal the self-satisfied slipperiness of the academic mind ("Such compression makes certain deviations from facticity unavoidable"). Sometimes—but not often enough—they’re just right, as with one passage that contains a meaningful payoff in the line, “It’s a fucking sea cow.”

A mixed bag that strives to blend science and literature, of some interest to aficionados of Baja and of popular science writing.