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I discovered ‘The Universe Below‘ by William J. Broad when I read Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, years ago. I got Broad’s book at that time, and after it had spent many years in my bookshelf, I decided to read it now for ‘Science September‘.

As the title describes, this book is about the deep part of the ocean. We would expect that it would be about the deep ocean and its shape and structure and about the strange and wonderful denizens who live there. It is about all these things, but the book also talks about other things, unexpected things. Let me explain.

The book is divided into seven chapters. Each chapter touches on a particular topic. The first chapter is about how the deep parts of the ocean were explored and how some of their secrets were discovered and how some of their wonderful denizens came ashore and amazed people, while other amazing inhabitants were discovered during underwater explorations. This chapter stretches to around 30 pages, and in my opinion, it was the best part of the book. It was definitely my favourite part. The second chapter talks about how the American Navy explored the ocean’s deep and used that knowledge to fight against its Cold War enemies. There is one chapter which talks about volcanic vents in the ocean floor and how they were discovered to be harbouring bacteria and other living beings which survived in conditions of extreme heat. The author also talks about his own trip to the ocean bed with scientists who were studying volcanic vents. Successive chapters talk about these – about ships which had sunk into the ocean and how treasure hunters and archaeologists and historians and scientists were trying to recover them now, how the supposed treasures in the ocean were being exploited by people and organizations and governments or how these denizens tried exploiting them, and how wastes were dumped into the ocean, especially radioactive wastes from nuclear reactors, and how that might have an adverse effect on marine life and their environment.

So, as you can see, the book is not just about oceanography and marine life, but it is also about many about things related to the ocean. The author has tried to focus on one topic in each chapter and so there is something in it for everyone. If your favourite is sunken treasure or sunken ships like the Titanic, there is a chapter on it. If your favourite is microbes which live in extremely hot deep sea volcanic vents, there is a chapter on it. If your favourite topic is fishes like the Coelacanth which were assumed to have gone extinction millions of years ago until they were discovered again recently, there is a chapter on it. My own favourites were the chapters on oceanography and deep sea life. I also found interesting the chapter on the American Navy’s involvement in the deep sea, because it talked about the evolution of a lot of new technology which was invented and used by the Navy, and which was later used by scientific organizations for deep sea research. The chapter about the exploitation of the deep sea was heartbreaking, especially when I discovered that some of the fish which are caught in the deep sea by fishing companies and which might be moving towards extinction, are like humans – they grow slowly and they live till a great age, like a hundred years or more. Human greed knows no bounds. The chapter on how governments dumped radioactive waste into the ocean was also heartbreaking. There was one particular passage which talked about how the American Navy used to dump radioactive waste stuffed in steel drums into the ocean not far from the coast, and when some of the drums refused to sink, the Navy pumped them with bullets and sea water entered those barrels and they sunk. It is hard to stop ourselves from asking the question, “What kind of idiot does that? Isn’t that drum filled with radioactive waste?” The Russians seem to have done even better – they dumped whole nuclear submarines and nuclear reactors into the ocean! Our hearts just seethe with anger at all the idiots in the different governments who did stuff like this.

I found ‘The Universe Below’ quite fascinating. It has lots of interesting information on the ocean from different perspectives, with lots of insights on humans’ engagement with the ocean. William Broad’s prose is engaging and moves at a smooth pace. The book doesn’t have any photographs, but Dimitry Schidlovsky’s black-and-white sketches, which look like a combination of line drawings and stippling art (drawing using dots), are beautiful and gorgeous and they are decked throughout the book like stars. The book made me want to explore the science of oceanography sometime.

Have you read William J. Broad’sThe Universe Below‘? What do you think about it?

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