Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Pacific by Simon Winchester

Pacific was a great choice for my road trip. The joy of learning and recognition was enhanced by the luscious prose and trustable voice of Simon Winchester, who read his own work.

From the atomic explosions on Bikini atoll to Prince Charles's off the record thoughts on the handover of Hong Kong, and from the Sony corporation's introduction of transistor radios to the market to the resurgence of ancient South Pacific navigational genius in the voyage of the Hokulea, the book was full of surprises.

A journalist who originally trained as a geologist, Winchester handily describes plate tectonics in the Pacific. He tells of the hydrothermal vents called black smokers and white smokers that erupt continuously on the deep ocean floor, spewing out molten metal where seawater meets magma. Recent discoveries of life in the lightless depths include giant white clams, and enormous worms so adapted to the deep pressure of their home that they explode when brought to the surface.

With equal aplomb, he discusses geopolitics. For instance, we learn that the persistent and terrible consequences of the division of North and South Korea can be traced back to a marking placed cavalierly on a map by a military man. He relates tragic stories of how repeated colonizations damaged the lives of South Sea Islanders. In a more positive vein, he describes how a Japanese scientist devoted his life to bringing back a certain kind of albatross from extinction.

Today, China is hugely influential in the Pacific. This influence can only grow as the world's most populous nation quietly expands its military and economic might, and takes control of more and more islands, both unoccupied and disputed ones that lie near its coastline.

We learn too how economic decisions trump ecosystems. We hear about the mysterious die-offs or coral in the Great Barrier Reef, exacerbated by a two-mile long hole torn by a coal carrier, and about Australia's decision to build more coal ports to facilitate sales of coal to China.

Is Australia part of Asia? The author muses on this question. Geographically it's close, and trade ties are strong. Yet Australia, like Canada and New Zealand, has a government founded on the British model. Indeed, the Australian representative of the Queen once used a little-known part of the Australian constitution to "fire" a popular Prime Minister whose budget didn't pass, and then ask his opponent to form a government. The two politicians later became good friends, but the Governor General's life was blighted by his action and he left Australia under a cloud.

The Sydney Opera House, a cultural icon of Australia and now a UNESCO heritage site, was many years in the making. From the selection of the Danish architect who won the international competition, the design and creation of the building involves a web of strange happenings.

The Pacific ocean is vast. Larger than all of our planet's landmass combined, it covers 30% of the earth. Winchester calls it the ocean of the future, as the Atlantic is the ocean of the recent past and the Mediterranean the sea of the ancient world.

Narrated by the author, this audiobook is informative, thoughtful and wide-ranging. I love Simon Winchester's work, which always seems to touch on matters that I personally find fascinating.

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