Edmund Blair Bolles is investigating a mystery: human creativity. Garbage in, garbage out
is the rule for even the most intelligent machines; but with human minds, the rules change. Sometimes the rule is as true for us as for any computer, but every once in a while it's Ignorance in, insight out
The example Bolles looks at is the Ice Age. Nowadays it's familiar to every schoolchild, but this familiarity has dulled our appreciation of just how wild an idea it once was. Earth-girdling floods seemed both reasonable and biblical, volcanoes unusual but not unknown. But a mile-thick sheet of ice covering much of the North Temperate Zone only 20,000 years ago was beyond anyone's experience or imagination.
The professor and the politician of Bolles's title are Louis Agassiz and Charles Lyell, two of the most famous geologists of the 19th century. The unusual character in Bolles's story is the poet: Elisha Kent Kane. To call Kane a poet is both over- and understatement: he was a celebrity, a romantic, a self-promoter, a mediocre explorer, and a particularly poor leader of men. He was also a dreamer who tried to find the lost Franklin expedition, and found the far north very different from his (or anyone else's) expectations: "dreams in, nightmares out." Yet it was Kane's bestselling book about his travels that brought the reality of great ice into the minds of laypeople and scientists alike: writes Bolles, "He is the one who made the Ice Age imaginable." --Mary Ellen Curtin
From Publishers Weekly
This is an entertaining, often irreverent, history of the scientific discovery of the Ice Age. Bolles is fascinated by the way in which scientific knowledge advances. He challenges the notion that it proceeds in a rational and orderly manner, always building on previous knowledge. People, he claims, "learn unsuspected things, pulling knowledge, like rabbits, from empty hats," and often, convincing scientists of a new idea is more a matter of politics than of science. As an example of this theory, he weaves together the biographies of three important players in the great Ice Age debate. Bolles focuses on Louis Agassiz, the naturalist who first theorized the Ice Age in 1837, but was unable to persuade the scientific community to accept his findings for almost 20 years. Second is Elisha Kent Kane, an adventurer and poet whose report on his journey to the north of Greenland in the 1850s provided the popular imagination with the vision of immense seas of ice at the Pole pouring great rivers of ice into the Atlantic and Greenland seas. Finally, Bolles writes of Charles Lyell, the great Scottish geologist whose book The Principles of Geology ignored the possibility that glaciers were capable of changing the earth's surface, and who resisted the notion of the Ice Age for many years after Agassiz had theorized about it. A master politician among his colleagues, once he was convinced of the theory, it became more widely accepted. Bolles claims that it was only the interaction among these three individuals, and many others who are mentioned in passing, that led to a lasting new understanding of the world in which we live. (Dec.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.