Science Book a Day Interviews Bill Green


Special thanks to Bill Green for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Water, Ice, And Stone: Science and Memory on the Antarctic Lakes

Bill Green is a geochemist and professor emeritus at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is also the author of Boltzmann’s Tomb: Travels in Search of Science and Water, Ice & Stone: Science and Memory on the Antarctic Lakes, which received the American Museum of Natural History’s John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing, was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and was excerpted in The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of the Finest Writing on the Arctic and the Antarctic, edited by Elizabeth Kolbert. Green first traveled to Antarctica in 1968 and began doing his own research there in 1980. To date he has been there nine times and has published many articles on the biogeochemical processes in the pristine lakes and meltwater streams of the McMurdo Dry Valleys. – Bellevue Literary Press

#1 – What was the impetus for Water, Ice and Stone?

It was always difficult for me to explain to friends, in a few minutes or an hour, what Antarctica was like. To do this, I thought it would be necessary to write a paper or even a book. I began with a descriptive article (“Antarctic Sojourn”) that was published in “The Sciences.” This caught the attention of an editor, who encouraged me to write a book on on the subject. I decided to tell the story of one of our typical field seasons in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, near the Ross Sea. I discussed the science we were doing,of course,but I placed greater emphasis on the experience itself. The joys and frustrations of working on the lakes; the extraordinary beauty of the place and the memories it evoked, became the focus of the book. I wrote about the shadows cast on the mountains, the murmuring of the streams, the sound of glaciers and the power and austerity of the land. These are all subjects which cannot be included in a scientific research paper and I wanted to speak of them. I wanted this to be a very personal book.

#2 – The book has been out for nearly 20 years. What has the response been from the public and other scientists?

In the first place, I was greatly surprised that the John Burroughs Society presented me with their national award in nature writing. I had not known much about this prize, but when I learned that it had been won in previous years by Rachel Carson, Barry Lopez and other writers whom I admired, I felt honored to be included in their company. I was also surprised that the book was chosen as a finalist for a PEN award in non-fiction. Newspaper and on-line reviews have been extremely positive and I have been gratified by this reception. Scientists, especially those who have worked in Antarctica, have been enthusiastic about the book and some researchers have recommended, or required, that their graduate students read it before embarking for the field. Members of the public have commented on the poetic language and the philosophical nature of WI&S and some have seen it as a meditation on nature.

#3 – Your book goes beyond the raw science. But into philosophical aspects about science and stories behind the research itself. Why was it important to you write about these ideas?

I believe it is important to see your work in a broader historical context and to realize that science has a long and illustrious history, of which any one of us is only a tiny part. By including some history and philosophy of science, I wanted to acknowledge this debt that we all owe to the past. Thales, Arrhenius,Planck and, more recently, Henry S. Frank and many others are represented in the pages of WI&S. In all of my writing I have tried to reveal the private face of science – the human face that we so rarely see in text books and scientific articles.

#4 – How many times have you been to Antarctica? Is it the same or different each time you go?

I have been to Antarctica nine times over a period extending from 1968 to 2000. The experience has been different each time. In 1968, there was virtually no communication with the outside world. It seemed Antarctica was on another planet. In more recent times, communications have changed and with the press of a button it is possible to send an email anywhere in the world. There are also many more scientific groups than in the past and more emphasis has been placed on global themes such as climate change. The work, however, continues to be done in the field, often under harsh conditions of bitter cold and high winds. And the Dry Valleys, themselves, remain stark and beautiful and largely unchanged from my earliest memories. I still feel, at times, as though I am working among the plains and mountains of Mars.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books that you can tell us about?

Since Water, Ice and Stone, I have published two books: One is entitled “Boltzmann’s Tomb:Travels in Search of Science.” It involves a recounting of journeys to mostly European cities of significance in the history of science:London, Cambridge, Florence, Bern, Vienna, and so on. The second is a collaboration with the highly regarded New Zealand photographer, Craig Potton. “Improbable Eden” is the first photographic essay devoted to the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Currently, I am writing a memoir about growing up near the industrial City of Pittsburgh in the 1950s. The book, “King Of The Rocks”, focuses on my father and on our family in a time very different from the present.

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