One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead
By Clare Dudman
(Viking, 416 pp., $25.95)
Alfred Wegener is not a household name, but he was a real scientist, and a famous one. In the early 20th century, Wegener literally shook the foundations of earth science by proposing the idea that Earth's continents are not static but in constant motion. In her first novel, One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead, Clare Dudman tries what many authors would be afraid to do: writing a fictional autobiography of this first ridiculed and then honored scientist 70 years after his death. She succeeds wonderfully.
Dudman is a scientist herself, a Ph.D. chemist who has worked in both academia and industry in her native Great Britain. She combines her technical insight and literary talent with Wegener's papers and diaries to achieve a portrayal of both science and scientist in action that is breathtaking in scope. The book is a first-person account, beginning with Wegener's boyhood delight in discovering the world around him, and exploring the passion for learning and adventure that guided his life, right to the too-early end. Wegener grew up in an age when science, especially earth science, was still pursued by people of action, explorers who quite literally trod unknown ground. He was a prime example of this explorer-scientist, and his obsession was the polar region. Three times he voyaged to Greenland to risk his life in the pursuit of knowledge, experiencing the kind of bleakness, isolation and cold that affects the mind as much as the body. These journeys on the ice not only satisfied his need for adventure and scientific inquiry, but also tempered him for the intellectual fight that dominated his academic life.
The scene in which Dudman describes the moment when Wegener formed the idea he later called "continental drift" is typical of the reverence and eloquence she brings to her subject. Wegener had been presented with a world atlas in which were shown not only the shapes of the continents but also the shapes of the continental shelves, the flooded lands that extend outward into the oceans. Suddenly, a fact that had been noticed by almost every geographer in historythat the African and South American coasts look like interlocking puzzle pieceswas noticed by someone prepared to offer a revolutionary explanation: "Did the sun break through then? I think it did. The way I remember it, it was a dark winter day in January. No sun at all. And then, just as Emil opened the pages, there must have been a gap in the clouds, and there was a beam of light hitting the maps, making the colours bright."
To say that Wegener's idea of drifting continents was received with skepticism would be a massive understatement. He was treated variously as a gentle fool or a dangerous idiot, his ideas discounted both because of their radical nature and because he was a meteorologist. The geologists and geophysicists of his day, who explained the formations of rocks around the world in terms of shrinking crust and land bridges, jealously guarded their turf. But Wegener had seen ice, lots of ice. He knew that seemingly solid ice could be bent and molded under pressure, forming folds like those he had seen in solid rock in the Alps. Why couldn't rocks be mobile, he wondered, moved and folded like the ice? And if individual beds of rocks could be moved, why not whole continents? He kept at his idea with remarkable tenacity, publishing book after book, lecture after lecture, gradually eroding the resistance to his theory. Today, earth scientists fully accept the resulting concept of plate tectonics, which explains so much so neatly.
One Day the Ice Will Give Up All Its Dead is a literary novel in the sense that it celebrates language as much as its subject. But Dudman offers more than a merely poetic outing. The adventures on the ice are engrossing, and Wegener's struggles with his family and colleagues are alternately heartbreaking and heartwarming. In the end, this is a nuanced portrait of a man whose dogged dedication to science and belief in himself not only cost him his life but changed the world.
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