A radiant love letter to science from a scientist with a poet’s soul.
Geophysicist Green (Interdisciplinary Studies/Miami Univ.; Water, Ice and Stone: Science and Memory on the Antarctic Lakes, 2008, etc.) has written a book that defies simple categorization—part memoir of a life in science, part history of science since Copernicus, part essay on the relationship of place to intellectual discovery. The title refers to a red herring of a mystery Green sets up but doesn’t solve: Why did the brilliant, visionary Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann kill himself while on a seaside vacation on the Adriatic? Boltzmann, who devised the formula for entropy, is a recurring character, a sort of angel of death, but the main character is Green, who was inspired to write this book by a question his daughter posed him while they were collecting samples from the Dry Lakes of Antarctica: “Why did you decide to work down here, Dad?” He gave her the short answer but was dissatisfied, stirred to dig deeper, taking as the real question, why science? Green retraces his steps from a boyhood in 1950s Pittsburgh spent playing baseball and experimenting with model rockets. Almost despite himself, he discovered a talent and fascination for chemistry at his Catholic high school, and he was encouraged by the nuns to consider a career in the field. He eventually moved from chemistry to geophysics and, ultimately, to his beloved McMurdo Base in Antarctica. As he revisits the cities where his career took him, he brings to life what it is about the scientific worldview that riveted him to his eccentric path. Green is an exquisite writer, and his fierce focus and mastery of style are reminiscent of the biologist and essayist Lewis Thomas.The casual reader will derive pleasure not only from the science Green teaches but from the eloquence he employs to teach it.