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Good Reads  Earth System Sciences  Hydrosphere  Oceanography

Blue Machine How the Ocean Shapes Our World

Popular Science New
By: Helen Czerski(Author)
447 pages, 2 b/w illustrations, 2 b/w maps
Blue Machine delves deep into the inner workings of the watery blanket of our planet.
Blue Machine
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  • Blue Machine ISBN: 9781804991961 Paperback May 2024 In stock
  • Blue Machine ISBN: 9781911709107 Hardback Jun 2023 Out of Print #259999
Selected version: £10.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

All of the Earth's ocean, from the equator to the poles, is a single-engine powered by sunlight – a blue machine.

In a book that will recalibrate our view of this defining feature of our planet, physicist Helen Czerski dives deep to illuminate the murky depths of the ocean engine, examining the messengers, passengers and voyagers that live in it, travel over it, and survive because of it. From the ancient Polynesians who navigated the Pacific by reading the waves to permanent residents of the deep such as the Greenland shark that can live for hundreds of years, she explains the vast currents, invisible ocean walls and underwater waterfalls that all have their place in the ocean's complex, interlinked system.

Timely, elegant and passionately argued, The Blue Machine is one of the biggest stories ever told. The understanding it offers is crucial to our future. Drawing on years of experience at the forefront of marine science, Helen Czerski captures the magnitude and subtlety of this complex force, showing us the thrilling extent to which we are at the mercy of this great engine.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • An engrossing odyssey into oceanography
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 23 Aug 2023 Written for Hardback

    In a break from many other books about the deep sea that talk about animals, Blue Machine focuses on the ocean itself, revealing a fascinating planetary engine. Equal parts physical oceanography, marine biology, and science history, topped off with human-interest stories, Czerski has written a captivating book that oozes lyricism in places.

    Czerski is an accidental oceanographer, stumbling into the discipline from a background in physics. She boasts a long list of science communication credentials as a TV presenter, podcast host, columnist, public speaker, and author. This is a big book with chunky chapters but Czerski keeps the flow going by alternating between scientific explanations, fascinating experiments, and remarkable historical episodes. I find the deep sea endlessly fascinating and have been drawn ever further into oceanography through my reviews, yet something was always missing. This book has finally scratched the oceanographic itch I have long been trying to satisfy. How so, you might ask?

    Start with that introduction. If you zoom right out, what sets a planet's temperature, and with it the potential for life, is the balance between energy input from the sun and energy loss to the universe in the form of heat. From this grand, cosmic perspective, what the ocean with its circulating currents does is intercept some of that incoming energy and prevent it from immediately escaping again, instead "diverting it on to a much slower path through the mechanisms of the Earth: ocean, atmosphere, ice, life and rocks" (p. 5). From an energy point of view, "the Earth is just a cascade of diversions, unable to stop the flood but tapping into it as it trickles past; and the ocean is an engine for converting sunlight into movement and life and complexity, before the universe reclaims the loan" (p. 6). To me, this was such an awe-inspiring, attention-grabbing perspective on life on Earth, expressed so eloquently, that I wondered: is Czerski the new Ed Yong of oceanography? Tell me more, please!

    What helps to understand the above perspective is the fact that the ocean is a vast three-dimensional environment that is constantly in motion, creating and maintaining differences at different scales. Heat and salinity create different layers of water that do not readily mix, meaning the ocean is stratified. This results in gigantic underwater conveyor belts and waterfalls. What makes these processes interesting is the shape of the container holding all this water: i.e. the continents and underwater topography. The local gravitational pull of the underlying rocks deforms the water surface, creating domes and holes over very large surface areas, a shape known as the geoid. Many more fundamental features and principles are described though she admits that she cannot squeeze the full complexity of the ocean into one book, treating other topics only briefly or not at all.

    Admirably, Czerski is equally at home in the marine biology department and she features some wonderful critters here. True, these abound in all good popular science books about the deep sea, but her physics background allows her to show how the physical and biological worlds intertwine. A beautiful example of this is the mesoscale eddies that are spun off by oceanic gyres: large islands of rotating water that become temporary havens for all the plankton and fish that find themselves inside. The formation of these wandering buffets is such a regular phenomenon that large ocean predators such as tuna can make a living by roaming the seas in search of them.

    Another captivating element is the many ingenious experiments, both historical and current, that she describes here. We almost developed a method to collect a long-term dataset on the global ocean's temperature by bouncing sound waves through the seas, but the idea stalled after a successful pilot experiment in 1991. More successful is the Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey which has been running for the last 90 years, deploying mechanical recorders towed behind ships that use elegant internal clockwork to capture plankton on long strips of mesh and have gathered valuable long-term records.

    The physical world also entwines with human history. One example is the narrow northern half of the Indian Ocean where gyres do not form but seasonal currents flow eastwards and westwards. The 14th-century Chinese Ming Dynasty used these to send expeditions of large ships laden with valuables up and down the coast of Asia and Arabia, trading goods for political influence and prestige. I was similarly captivated by the poorly known story of the 18th-century Scottish herring lassies: bands of female contractors who travelled south along the English coast each summer, following the southwards moving herring fleet. While the men worked the boats out at sea, the women were ready in ports and at beaches to gut, salt, and pack each day's landing before the freshly-caught fish could spoil. Hard-working, skilled, and independent, they were decades ahead of most other women in Victorian England.

    All of this is backed up by an attitude that, coming from a scientist, is refreshingly clued in to social issues. This becomes explicit in the final chapter where she addresses the environmental issues she has so far avoided. Though a popular mantra in politics is that we need to follow the science, she opposes this "for the simple reason that science does not lead. Where leadership comes from is a clear statement of values" (p. 381). Science can inform these, yes, but we have to decide what we care about for ourselves and our communities. Going down this path involves hard questions without simple answers, and nuance rather than binary "I am right, you are wrong" categories. It also means breaking with our perception of "the ocean as the end of a one-way pipe" (p. 289). There is no "away" on this planet for our trash. And it means breaking with a culture of infinite growth on a finite planet. Her thinking here is influenced by her contact with Polynesian cultures that value cooperation, openness, and teamwork, in contrast to the Western mindset of ownership and power play.

    If I need to sound a critical note it is the lack of illustrations. Though the UK version features nice endpapers and a stunning cover, there are only two maps and two illustrations in the rest of the book. Especially some of the physical oceanography principles would have benefited from explanatory diagrams.

    Blue Machine is an engrossing odyssey into oceanography. Czerski brings her substantial experience in science communication to bear on this topic and has written a transformative book. She brings to life the watery fabric of the ocean itself in ways I have not encountered before.
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Helen Czerski was born in Manchester. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at University College London. As a physicist, she studies the bubbles generated by breaking waves in the ocean to understand their influence on weather and climate.

Helen has been a regular presenter of BBC TV science documentaries since 2011. She also hosts the Ocean Matters podcast, is part of the Cosmic Shambles network, and is one of the presenters for the Fully Charged Show. She has been a science columnist for the Wall Street Journal since 2017 and she is the author of the bestselling Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life, Bubbles: A Ladybird Expert Book, and Blue Machine: How the Ocean Works.

Popular Science New
By: Helen Czerski(Author)
447 pages, 2 b/w illustrations, 2 b/w maps
Blue Machine delves deep into the inner workings of the watery blanket of our planet.
Media reviews

– Radio 4 Book of the Week
Financial Times 2023 Highlight
The Times Book of the Week

"This beautifully written, sweeping guide shows how the deep movement of the seas have ruled our lives in unexpected ways over millennia."
The Times

"A dazzle of stories beautifully told [...] Outstanding [...] Her readers will see the seas anew."
– Horatio Clare, Telegraph

"In Helen Czerski's hands, the mechanical becomes magical. An instant classic."
– Tristan Gooley, author of How to Read Water

"Blue Machine is quite simply one of the best books I have ever read."
– Dr George McGavin, zoologist, entomologist and broadcaster

"A fascinating dive into the essential engine that drives our world. Czerski brings the oceans alive with compelling stories that masterfully navigate this most complex system."
– Gaia Vince, science journalist, broadcaster and author of Nomad Century

"A spectacular read."
– Martin Chilton, Independent

"Lively and engrossing [...] Alongside her vivid portrayal of waters sliding over one another, colliding, mixing and turning into ice or water vapour, she explains how the living beings within the sea also form part of the 'blue machine' [...] [Cerzski's personal experience of both Polynesian canoes off Hawaii and ice floes near the North Pole is not icing on the cake but part of the argument of this excellent and important book."
– David Abulafia, The Spectator

"Helen Czerski's fascinating new book casts the ocean as an extraordinary giant engine, and helps us grasp its complex physics and its key role in climate change"
– Graham Lawton, New Scientist

"In this captivating and urgently-needed book, Czerski weaves a wonderful, watery spell, entwining spectacular science with poetic awe as she expertly guides readers through the workings of a vast, unfamiliar world. Moving and thrilling, The Blue Machine tells us about the seas but also makes us care: an epic love story that captures the ocean's beating heart."
– Jo Marchant, author of Cure and The Human Cosmos

"I love Helen Czerski's writing, and this is her richest work yet – as clear as springwater, yet as filled with fascinating things as the ocean itself."
– Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live and Humanly Possible

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