Reviewed by Benjamin Moser
Tahiti's gone condo, but mysteries are still waiting for those who know where to look: not necessarily in different places but even, as Bill Streever shows in Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places (Bay Back Books, $14.99), at different temperatures. Cold describes a journey to a sensation that, in our comfortable, climate-controlled lives, is as foreign to most of us as New Guinea itself. (Though both offer opportunities for shedding a few pounds: "Cold, really, is like malaria. If it does not kill you, it will help you lose weight.")
Streever voluntarily plunges into the Arctic Ocean for five long minutes in order to recount, in painful detail, just how fast his body temperature drops. He describes how certain animals have evolved amazing protections against cold: "Take an African desert fly, dry it out, throw it in 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."
His account takes us month by month through a year at his home in Alaska, though over the course of that year he visits places ranging from the Philippines (to describe why certain fishes cannot live in colder waters) to Windsor Castle, where he unsuccessfully attempts to interview the Queen about her enormous, drafty hallways. Like Novotny, Streever is a scientist with a flair for anecdotes -- "Fourier harbored a strong aversion to cold. He believed that wrapping up in blankets would improve his health. In 1830, wrapped in blankets, he tripped down a flight of steps. The fall killed him" -- even as he leads us through the complex debates about climate change and global warming with precision and an appreciation for a phenomenon that most of us dismiss as inconvenient, if we bother to think about it at all.
Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine and the author of Why This World.
Books mentioned in this post