Cetacean Scientists in the US

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Paul Greenberg recently reviewed D. Graham Burnett's The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century in the New York Times. Greenberg traces the arc, as told by Burnett, of the cetacean scientist from standing knee-deep in whale innards at the turn of the century to being newly enlightened by whale-ish complexity in the interwar years to fighting alongside other frustrated technocrats at the dawn of an age of international conservation to expanding the human and Cete mind in groovy ways amidst a backdrop of Cold War science. He comes away fascinated by the experience, but also wonders if the reading public wouldn't benefit from something less that 793 pages, with footnotes for the footnotes (almost) ---or actually, he wonders if the public wouldn't benefit from more: a shortened version to accompany the encyclopedic one.

Read the review. You'll encounter the characters who most capture Greenberg's imagination: A. Remington Kellogg (the Prince of Whales) and John C. Lilly, both of whom are American scientists worth extended consideration.

(There's a similar, but not so extensive, review at the Wall Street Journal.)
(Also, I haven't seen the text yet, but it sounds like it has footnotes and not merely endnotes. I *love* footnotes. Am I alone here?)

2 comments

It's interesting for me to see one of the comments by the author is the "difficulty of drawing a comprehensible and (is this asking too much?) pleasurable reading line through the tricky ins and outs of whale policy" - especially having started his review describing whale as a food source. In my period of study (1880-1930) whales (and dolphins and pelagic fish) occupy an odd place in the scientific world. Fisheries biologists study them, but the very point of understanding them is to utilize them as a sustainable source of food for the general public. The history is bound to be confusing when the designation of creatures has to be "useful" before federal biological work (through which most money was flowing into marine research at the time)is even contemplated. Pleasure is not too much to ask, but eliminating the difficulty may be watering down the historical confusion too much.

Good point, s. It struck me that Greenberg offered a kind of backhanded complement (for an academic) with that line. Indeed, based on the blurbs for the book, it seems that academic audiences most appreciate all the messy whale science/policy stuff --- exactly that which Greenberg wishes to excise. It would seem that Burnett's book has its own problem of multiple, conflicting audiences. It is a whale of a book. (I'm sure I'm not the first to make that joke.)

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