DESCENT by Brad Matsen


The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss
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For true-adventure buffs: an engrossing tale of brains, careerism, and clashing egos on the high seas.

Eighty years ago, there was no more famous pop-science writer than William Beebe. As nature-documentary producer Matsen writes, by 1926 Beebe had produced 11 books and hundreds of articles about his adventures on behalf of the New York Zoological Society, for which he was a curator of ornithology, and in doing so had acquired thousands of fans. One was a Columbia engineering student named Otis Barton, who was amazed to read that Beebe was planning a descent via a “steel cylinder” into the Atlantic deep; the cylinder’s walls were reported to be a quarter-inch thick, good for a descent of a mile or more. For the mission to succeed, however, Barton calculated that the tanker would have to be either much thicker or so heavily braced that a passenger would not be able to fit inside. Barton took his concerns to Beebe and struck a deal: Barton would pay for a bathyscaphe and accompany Beebe on a diving expedition. Beebe walked a tightrope between science and celebrity, Matsen writes, and it did not help matters that Barton was as hungry for renown as he; their diving efforts may have been less successful than either would have wished, but at least neither died—and their contraption worked. Still, Barton and Beebe fell out, with Barton complaining that Beebe hogged all the publicity and that none of the newspapers cared about his side of the story. “It wasn’t so much that Barton wanted more credit for building the Bathysphere and making the dives, though he had done all that,” writes Matsen, “but that every line of ink was money in the bank if he hoped to make a living in the movie business.” Beebe went on to other things, while Barton continued his diving experiments, both diminished by the feud.

Beebe is still somewhat known today, however, while Barton is not. Matsen gives him overdue recognition, even as he offers a cautionary tale about the price of fame.

Pub Date: April 12th, 2005
ISBN: 0-375-42258-7
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2005


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