Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean

Tides coverTides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean
Jonathan White
read by Dan Woren
Blackstone Audio, Inc. (February 14, 2017)
print edition: Trinity University Press (January 16, 2017)
free for Audible members, $14.95 for nonmembers

In his introduction to Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean, Jonathan White describes leading an educational tour on his ship Crusader when it ran aground. This despite his being an experienced sailor who well knew that he had be familiar with and respect the tides. The passengers had to be rescued by a fishing boat while he and a crew member stayed with the ship which eventually righted itself.

This incident prompted White to study the science behind the tides, and he embarked on a multi-year endeavor, taking him around the world. He visited the Bay of Fundy in eastern Canada, where migrating birds ate tiny shrimp, all in tune with the tides. Those mud shrimp must come out from under the sand to eat and mate, despite the risk of being consumed by the birds. But they must do so in sync with the tide, and their timing must be precise. White visited Mont Saint-Michel on the coast of France where tourists and supply trucks must time their visits in accordance with the tides. He traveled to the mouth of the Quintang River in China, home to the frightening Silver Dragon tidal bore. Returning to Eastern Canada he explored gathering mussels under the ice with an indigenous hunter. Off the coast of Panama he talked to native peoples whose islands are falling victim to rising sea levels, and he learned how the people of Venice are learning to cope with the same.

White spends a lot of time discussing the history of how humans have tried to understand the tides. He talks about Aristotle, the Plinys (father and son), Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. I found these passages to be less interesting, and in some places questioned White’s research and credibility. He states that Pliny the Younger’s work was translated into Latin in the Middle Ages. Really? I read Pliny’s letters in their original classical Latin when I was in college.

His discussions of science and technology were more engaging. White explains that while we tend to think of the tides as being solely controlled by the moon he tells us it is more complicated than that. He notes that while the Atlantic Ocean is largely controlled by the moon, the sun has a greater influence on the Pacific. He points out that the oceans are vibrating basins that respond to the influences of the moon and sun. The earth’s rotation has an influence as well. How the tides act depends on both the moon and sun up there as well as the fluid dynamics in the ocean down here.

White talks about European tide mills in earlier centuries that worked similar to windmills, but used the power of the tides rather than the wind. He describes seeing a nineteenth century tidal flour mill in action. The author discusses modern-day attempts to use the tides to generate electricity, something that is tricky, both because of the power of the tides beating on the equipment and due to the complicated environmental implications.

Voice actor Dan Woren expertly reads the book. He is a pleasure to listen to and White’s material is fascinating.

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