Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Gaines: Carbon Dreams—A Scientific Romance


Even as the global climate change debate warms up, Susan Gaines has used the topic to fuel an intriguing tale of how science theory is used (and abused) by policy-makers. Carbon Dreams is fiction, with just enough real science, culled from Gaines' extensive background in chemistry and oceanography, stirred in to make it believable and exciting.
[In organic geochemistry]... we use organic molecules the way a geologist might use a rock, or a paleontologist a fossil—as clues to the age of a sediment, what kind of organisms existed, what the ecology was like, the climate... I found a group of lipids that contain the imprint of seawater temperature in their structures. They come from microscopic algae that no one even knew existed until last year.
Dr. Tina Arenas is a organic geochemist working on the leading edge of the science, who works at Brayton Institute of Oceanography, BIO (a loosely disguised Scripps Oceanographic Institute). What Tina wants is to try her proposed method for determining paleotemperatures from marine sediments on the second cruise of the "big drill" science ship Explorer. She agrees to let her friend Katherine, who is already invited, game her theory to the ship's director, Sylvia Orloff.

Before she can find out if Katherine has been successful, her advisor, Garret Thomas, informs her that her grant application has been refused, and she will need to divert her work into a field that can get funding—perhaps oil exploration. Without this grant, she cannot participate on the exploration cruise even if she is invited. With Thomas' help, they massage her grant application to focus on a possible "petrochemical application" in her original thesis, and succeed in getting funding based on that adjustment. (Although Tina feels that this is slightly underhanded, and takes her research in a direction she hadn't intended to go.)
"I went to a seminar... in the geology department. The geologist presented a model that used the thermal history of a rock to tell if the conditions had been right for petroleum formation... They got into this big argument in the middle of the guy's talk. Apparently there isn't any way of knowing the thermal history of these rocks..."
In the meantime, Tina has a life outside the lab, a very spicy love affair with the landscaper for the BIO grounds. As an agriculturist, Chip has a different take on Tina's "misuse" of the grant process—his is the ecological voice in the novel, and as Tina becomes more involved with him, her views coincide more and more with his.

Almost as fascinating as the human characters are the scientific theories Gaines peppers liberally throughout the story. Tina's advisor theorizes about the origin of life in structured clays, and the erudite debate between them occupies the first part of the tale. Theories about ancient climate changes fuel the current-day science, and the novel does a good job of presenting these theories in context (with their authors disguised) to underpin the search for causes.
Maitland's was provocative, as usual... He'd explained why CO2 wasn't lower during the interglacial, but not why it was higher by fifty percent... Maitland postulated that phytoplankton had played a major role; even though most of the organic matter produced was quickly oxidized back to CO2 by bacteria, this occurred after it sank out of the surface waters, effectively pumping CO2 into the deep sea and out of contact with the atmosphere.*
Gaines has avoided the B-movie cliché of presenting scientists as naive or focused solely on their science. Her scientists are human, with foibles and ambitions like people in any other endeavor. And while some readers may be uncomfortable with the conclusion of the story, it's best to keep in mind that this is fiction. Informed fiction, but still fiction.
   "But the majority of scientists are saying that global warming is inevitable. Oh, sure, they'd use words like 'probably' and 'maybe,' but a few are starting to concede that we should do something. This Cox is a dissenting opinion."
   "Sometimes the dissenting opinions are the important ones."
And sometimes truth is found in fiction.

*I was reminded when I read Maitland's theory in this novel about the vast amounts of methane trapped in marine clathrates that played a major role in John Barnes' Mother of All Storms.

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