Thursday, March 6, 2014

Stephen R. Palumbi & Anthony R. Palumbi's "The Extreme Life of the Sea"

Stephen R. Palumbi is Professor of Biology and Director of the Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford University. His film projects include the BBC series The Future Is Wild, the History channel's Life after People, and the Short Attention Span Science Theater. His books include The Death and Life of Monterey Bay and The Evolution Explosion. Anthony R. Palumbi, Stephen's son, is a science writer and novelist whose work has appeared in the Atlantic and other publications.

Anthony Palumbi applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, The Extreme Life of the Sea, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Each flight is only seconds long. Cruel gravity pulls her toward the water – and beneath is the rainbow form of the mahi mahi matching speeds. When she starts to lose altitude, she dips her tail and tags the sea for another burst of power. Up to a dozen times she might graze the surface and glide again. The death race flashes across the sea, covering the 50-meter length of an Olympic-sized pool in seconds. The mahi mahi tracks the flyer, keeping up with the slow curves of her evasive maneuvers. It’s eaten many flying fish, and every new dip of our heroine’s tail offers a fresh attack window. But a missed strike will let the flyer escape, and so the predator holds fast. Both fish are at their physical peaks racing toward the horizon. Only an abrupt splash in the distance tells you that one or the other has won.
Text consumes page 99’s lower half; a picture [inset, left] occupies the top, a 19th-century drawing of a mahi in pursuit of a flying fish. Our book has a good number of pictures, but hardly one per page! We’re lucky here. This is from our “Fastest” chapter, covering the ocean’s greatest athletes. At the base of the page, after the quoted passage constituting the end of our flying fish section, the next section (on the hydrodynamics of whales and dolphins) begins.

This might be my favorite vignette from the whole book. This isn’t smoke-blowing; I cited this very passage as my favorite in our “This Week in Science” interview! It’s got everything I believe makes this book special: evocative language, thrilling action sequences and a focus on character development. With regard to the first, we’ve deployed powerful imagery in the wording, but what may not come through is the meticulous research behind it. A huge amount of work went into making sure every last detail was both accurate and exciting. As for the action sequence: that’s always a great device for holding readers’ attention, but it became particularly important in the “Fastest” chapter. If you’re describing speed and strength, double down and make your words fast and powerful!

But the last element I mentioned is by far the most important. Our mantra during this project was always, “nobody cares about the story until they care about the characters.” To that end, the words “our heroine” aren’t used facetiously. The pages preceding the quoted passage build this little flying fish into quite the protagonist! She’s fast, strong, brave and decisive. We do our best to place the reader inside that flying fish’s little torpedo-shaped body - to make you identify with her, admire her and then root for her in a very real, visceral way. Of course it helps that the stakes are so high. This probably sounds odd, but I grew very attached to that flying fish while working on that section. It’s my favorite because she’s my favorite. I really hope she made it.
Learn more about The Extreme Life of the Sea at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue