Deep Water: As Polar Ice Melts, Scientists Debate How High Our Oceans Will Rise, by Daniel Grossman. TED 2012. TED App for iPhone/iPad, Kindle, Nook. Book web site
[Editor's note: John Dupuis, the author of this review, is the Acting Associate University Librarian at York University in Toronto. He's joined me and other Download the Universe editors on several panels about science ebooks, and he's tempered our optimism with thoughtful skepticism about how ebooks can add to civilization's body of knowledge. (What happens when no one makes Kindles anymore?) Recently, Dupuis wrote about a new ebook from TED on his own blog, Confessions of A Science Librarian. I asked him if he could write an expanded version for Download the Universe.--Carl Zimmer]
Guest review by John Dupuis
I feel a little weird reviewing this book. It's a TED book, you see. What's a TED book, you ask? I'll let TED tell you:
Shorter than a novel, but longer than an magazine article--a TED Book is a great way to feed your craving for ideas anytime. TED Books are short original electronic books produced every two weeks by TED Conferences. Like the best TEDTalks, they're personal and provocative, and designed to spread great ideas. TED Books are typically under 20,000 words--long enough to unleash a powerful narrative, but short enough to be read in a single sitting.
They're like TED talks, in other words, but they provide longer, more in-depth treatment than is possible in a short talk. On the surface, that's a really great idea. In practice, it can be a bit problematic--just like TED talks.
Carl Zimmer and Evgeny Morozov have gone into fairly extensive detail about the dark side of TED talks and TED books. Basically, the format encourages a kind of hip superficiality and fame-mongering. Ideas want to be famous, to paraphrase the famous saying that information wants to be free. In fact, ideas should be deep and well thought-out. And, you know, even perhaps a little on the valid side, too.
Which brings me to this particular TED book: Daniel Grossman's Deep Water. Here's how TED describes it:
As global warming continues, the massive ice caps at Earth’s poles are melting at an increasingly alarming rate. Water once safely anchored in glacial ice is surging into the sea. The flow could become a deluge, and millions of people living near coastlines are in danger. Inundation could impact every nation on earth. But scientists don’t yet know how fast this polar ice will melt, or how high our seas could rise. In an effort to find out, a team of renowned and quirky geologists takes a 4,000-mile road trip across Western Australia. They collect fossils and rocks from ancient shorelines and accumulate new evidence that ancient sea levels were frighteningly high during epochs when average global temperatures were barely higher than today. In Deep Water veteran environmental journalist, radio producer and documentary filmmaker Daniel Grossman explores the new and fascinating science — and scientists — of sea-level rise. His investigation turns up both startling and worrisome evidence that humans are upsetting a delicate natural equilibrium. If knocked off balance, it could hastily melt the planet’s ice and send sea levels soaring.
Grossman explains the details fairly clearly, wrapping them up in an engaging package of fairly typical science writing. In keeping with the pop science writer playbook, Grossman does a good job of finding some key scientists and following them around on a bunch of fun adventures, getting them to tell the climate change and sea level story in a very human and accessible way. The spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, as it were. If the main message sometimes seems a bit obscured by cool fun stories and colorful characters, well, that's something I guess I can live with. (And it is certainly part of the TED ethos of embedding ideas into very personal stories.)
The real problem I have with the book is that as a book--rather than a TED talk--it very definitely needs a solid bibliography and accurate citations if it's going to establish and maintain credibility with anyone.
I'm not saying I don't believe the claims that Grossman makes about climate change and rising sea levels, because I do. But I still think it is important to back up such claims with direct links to the science itself. At very least, if climate skeptics are reading this, they will be more likely to be convinced if they can track back to the research. (Or maybe not, which is the sad case with climate skeptics.) In any case, I still would like to see actual citations in the text rather than the typical "research says" or "recently it was shown."
Would I recommend this book to people interested in climate science and the state of our oceans? If you already know a lot about these topics, not really. If you would like to get up to speed in a hurry, then reading this book is a pretty decent way to do so.
As for TED books in general, it might be wise to avoid the more conceptual and pop-cultural examinations of serious topics. But this example of the TED beast is quite respectable--perhaps closer to what TED was initially conceived of rather than what it has evolved into. I definitely wouldn't mind seeing more TED books in this vein.
As a university librarian, I usually spend some time in my reviews discussing which libraries should consider purchasing a book. But this book is only available as a Kindle Single, through iBooks or via the TED Books app, none of which are really particularly accessible to libraries and their patrons. So I'll pass on that (perhaps preferring to break up with ebooks, in my librarian capacity).
My initial review of Deep Water was based on a PDF version, with illustrations provided to me by the publisher. Since then I've had a chance to look at it on the TED Books app, which you can get for free in the iTunes store. The app version is formatted and laid out much better than the "advanced reading copy" PDF, but that's not much of a surprise. It does add quite a bit of functionality and content, including some extra text, videos, timelines, audio, hyperlinks and maps. The app also provides a way to share observations on Twitter, Facebook or email. There's even a way to comment on the story and read other people's comments.
The extra content, especially the videos, is pretty good, but not transformational in terms of the overall experience. Nor does it really add a hugely significant amount of new information. The annotations could have very easily been used to add citations to sources without detracting from the flow of the text. The sharing and commenting functions are decent but don't seem to be too widely used.What I would have found handy was a way to highlight text as I was reading and attach my own annotations and bookmarks to come back to later.
Overall, the extra functionality provided by the app was nice but doesn't really change my evaluation: the book is mostly worth reading, and I'd like to see more science-based TED books.
John Dupuis is a science librarian at York University and the author of the blogConfessions of a Science Librarian.