Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz

Calling all adventurers!!! If you love an adventure, then you will love this book. Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz is a non fiction book that takes you on a tour of the paths that James Cook, a captain for the British in the middle to late 1700s, took. It was his job to go out there and find stuff...literally. There were rumors of things like a huge continent on the southern part of the planet and a northern passage way. Capt. Cook went looking for it and instead found places like New Zealand, Australia, the archipelagos of the Pacific ocean and Hawaii. He mapped much of the area and the maps he created were used up until the 1990s...how about that for precision!

The book is part travelogue, part history told by the author Tony Horwitz. Horwitz took about 18 months out of his life to follow the paths that Cook followed and to visit the places that Cook "found". I put this in quotes because there were communities of people living there already, he was just the first of the western world to come across them.

I read this book mainly because my Dad is a sailor and so I immediately had an interest in it. I will tell you that there are some sailing terms in there that I had heard of because my Dad likes to talk about sailing....a lot. There were some things that I didn't understand though, but it totally doesn't take away from the book.

Horwitz and his partner Roger ("He came over for a beer and stayed for 5") are a hilarious duo as they travel around the Pacific Islands. While the two are in Australia and looking for an Aboriginal settlement, they see this :
"Several miles from Cooktown, the highway dwindled to an unpaved track winding into the wilds of the Cape York peninsula. The few vehicles coming the other way looked like lunar landing craft, emerging from dust clouds with spare tires, jerry cans of petrol and water and other life-support systems strapped to the roof. They had their headlights switched on to navigate the murk, and snorkel-like tubes extruding from the hood so the engine could suck in air if the rest of the car was submerged" -p187
They travel to Tonga where some of the largest people on the planet live, "....beginning with their king, who was once cited by the Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest monarch, at 444 pounds" (p252).

Cook (and I am sure many people of the era) was truly amazing in the amount of things he knew how to do. They had to have ALL the skills, not just learn one thing and never look outside the box at what else you might be able to do with those skills:
"Reading Cook's journals is a constant reminder of how specialized our skills have become in the modern era. On one page, Cook discusses astronomy, geology, meteorology and animal husbandry. On the next, he offers insight into management, commerce, and diplomacy. Then he veers into lengthy speculation about ocean currents and the formation of islands. Few people today would even dream of dabbling in so many disciplines, much less mastering them" -p254
It's sad I think when we look at our era. What happened to the Renaissance man (or woman). I work at a lab where people only want to talk about physics. Now I am not talking about everyone, but lots of times I'll try and bring up a book I recently read, or a great run I had or whatever and you see people's eyes glaze over and the interest goes away. As soon as I say "for loop" or "particle interaction" I have their attention back. It annoys me a lot of the time and I just wish that people would look at the world around them and take more of it in.

Actually I have to send a shout out to my advisor who does a really amazing job with this, and is absolutely one of the coolest people I know. I am so lucky that I get to work for him. Aside from being one of the top physicists at our lab he dabbles in biking (he talked about trying out for the Discovery team...apparently Lance Armstrong is having open tryouts and they are taking place at the Speedway in Indianapolis), reading, being a father and so on. We named one of the machines at work 'Dominique' after a character in one of our favorite books, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. We told him that, and he said, "Oh that's a great book, I just told my daughter to read it". I like to think that he likes to talk to us about things other than physics although I am sure there are times when he'd like me to talk more about physics. I'm getting there I promise!

Alright, enough about ranting about most physics nerds and praising one of them.

The book is good and I recommend it. The things the sailors did and lived through at the time was truly amazing. I would be interested in hearing what my readers think of Capt. Cook if they have heard of him. The view by some of the people on the islands was negative towards the captain as they believe he came and brought diseases and the western world with him and stomped all over the rituals and communites that were already there. I don't know, read it for yourself and see what you think. I think it would have happened anyways, he just happened to be the first person there and so takes the blame. Interesting stuff.



Bridgette said...

HOLY CRAP - I WANT TO GO TO THE TRYOUTS! OK, not really try out, but at least watch!

LeahC said...

yeah I think it's pretty sweet.