Eager reader of history, mystery, classics, biographies, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, and etc. My reviews are mostly positive--I rarely finish or write about books I don't enjoy. My TBR is too high for that.
Gabrielle Walker, a British scientist with a Ph.D. in chemistry, has captured the wonderful, almost other worldly quality of the southernmost part of our planet in Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent. Penguins are Antarctica's cute cliche and I love them as much as anyone but there are many other fascinating creatures of Antarctica that Walker includes in her book, among them giant single-celled organisms that survive in the Antarctic Sea by eating multi-celled animals much larger than themselves, cyanobacteria that somehow make their homes inside rocks, and the idiosyncratic research scientists and support people from countries around the world who have chosen to live in a frozen desert that has only one day per year, with six months of sunlight followed by six months of darkness.
Walker spent a lot of time in Antarctica herself visiting its numerous research stations, including a joint French and Italian outpost where scientists drilled into ice so old and deep that the cores they extracted reveal information about what the Earth's atmosphere and climate were like before the existence of our species. Because she traveled to facilities run by various countries she is able to report that the Italians have the most fashionable cold weather apparel, the French serve the best meals complete with wine, the Russians have a beautiful if incongruous domed Eastern Orthodox church to worship in, the Argentinians have schools and other child-friendly facilities because they encourage families to settle there, and the British are only beginning to catch up to the Americans in terms of the percentage of females on site.
The unique features of Antarctica make it appealing to scientists of just about any field, from biology and climate change to astronomy and space exploration. Since their communities are small and insular, people tend to mix so that a carpenter, an astrophysicist, a cook and an administrator might all sit down to eat together. With a writing style as engaging as the best fiction, Walker makes reading about their lives and challenges just as interesting as learning about the science they do.
If you've seen Werner Herzog's wonderful documentary about Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World, this book by Gabrielle Walker will be especially satisfying because it fills in details about the continent and its inhabitants that the film couldn't cover.