What’s cool about “Cold” are a zillion little fun facts like this one:
The explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 led to the creation of the monster Frankenstein.
Writes Bill Streever:
“Mary Shelley was holed up in Lord Byron’s lakeside retreat near Geneva in the summer of 1816. The weather kept Byron’s guests indoors, and he challenged them to come up with ghost stories. Shelley came up with Frankenstein, which was published two years later.”
Ironically enough, Streever points out, Shelley’s novel starts with letters from an Arctic explorer. The explorer spots a dogsled pulling the living thing mysteriously created by Dr. Frankenstein.
Throughout, “Cold” is chock full of details like that one. “Cold” is smooth, rich and bursting with flavor, kind of like the best ice cream.
Streever’s concept is simple enough—to study the “consistent, ongoing influence of cold on the planet.” That’s from the book jacket. “Cold” is as entertaining and fascinating, like a long article in National Geographic that keeps coming at the same subject from a variety of colorful angles.
In the hands of Bill Streever, “Cold” moves quickly. Streever is like a terrific favorite science teacher; he knows how to light up the whole room, not just the scientifically inclined. This is a fairly breezy book. It rarely deals with scientific jargon (which meant I could understand it). It’s populated by an interesting cast. In addition to Shelley and Lord Byron, there’s Charles Darwin, Ben Nevis, John James Audubon, Roald Amundsen, Richard Byrd, Arthur C. Clarke, Frederick Cook, Daniel Fahrenheit, Benjamin Franklin, Adolphus Greely, Robert E. Peary and Ernest Shackleton (naturally).
Carved into twelve chapters—one for each month, starting in July—Streever goes on a journey around the world, back in time and down to deep spots in the ocean. Streever recounts various cold weather expeditions to the North and South Poles, including Adolphus Greely’s doomed venture to the North Pole. That trip turned so desperate without food that the men ate their leather shoelaces.
“Cold” relives the stunning 1888 blizzard that swept through the Midwest, walks us through hypothermia, takes us on a hike up Scotland’s highest peak, makes us stop and wonder about birds and their migratory abilities (one of my favorite sections) and contemplates early attempts to cool vast interior places such as Westminster Abbey in the era of King James I (1620). All along the way, Streever reveals his keen curiosity—and sense of humor.
In a London taxi, Streever is telling the a disinterested driver that polar bear skulls found in Kew Gardens dated back to the Pleistocene. “During the Pleistocene, I tell him, polar bears roamed through what would become downtown London. `The bears,´ I say, `were as big and white as German and American tourists visiting Westminster Abbey.´ We ride the remaining twenty minutes in silence.”
Throughout, “Cold” drips with fascinating details, from squirrel hibernation to fish surviving in gravel pit ponds through the winter (under six feet of ice) to how nomads from the Stone Age learned to ski. At every step, Streever is interesting—and interested. “Take an African desert fly, dry it out, throw it in a liquid helium at temperatures below minus 450 degrees, warm it up, and pour some water on it, and it will demonstrate what it is to be a survivor.”
Utlimately, “Cold” closes with some thoughts on global warming and makes a compelling case for the damage we have done—and the process we have already set in motion. Read this book but keep a blanket handy. You might shiver the whole time it’s going down.