Bioluminescence is one of those words, six science-sounding syllables, that might make some readers back away slowly. Such hesitation would be a shame, however, if it stops anyone from picking up marine biologist Edith Widder's enthralling new memoir, "Below the Edge of Darkness."
Widder has spent four decades studying bioluminescence, which is nothing more than the cold light that living organisms produce via chemical reactions. Have you ever seen a lightning bug? That's bioluminescence. Those otherworldly creatures that light up like the Vegas Strip in every ocean documentary? Bioluminescence. In fact, as Widder writes, "Virtually all the natural light that illuminates life on Earth originates from two sources: the sun and bioluminescence."
The science throughout the book is fascinating as Widder repeatedly revolutionizes her field, but there is much more than science here. Widder is also an explorer, an inventor and a captivating storyteller whose life has been uncommonly adventurous, both on land and at sea. When she was 18, Widder was diagnosed with a broken back, resulting in a four-month hospital stay during which she went blind for many weeks and developed other severe complications. And twice she has been in a submersible vessel thousands of feet deep when it began to leak.
As she points out, she clearly survived these challenges to write this book, and thankfully most of her other thrills are by design. Recounting her first deep sea dive in 1984, she marvels at the "dazzling meteor shower of luminescence," and at every successive stage of her storied career, she retains that wonderment at the endless enchantments under the sea.
And there have been many, such as the glowing sucker octopus, which she discovered in 1997, and the giant squid, which she was the first to capture on video in its natural habitat in 2012 (using a device, the Medusa, that she helped to develop). She has trawled underwater lakeshores in the Gulf of Mexico, visited undersea gardens "straight out of the imagination of Dr. Seuss," and experienced so much more.
But no career is solely awe and autonomy. Widder offers a forceful critique of our current mismanagement of the oceans, lamenting the "chronic underfunding" of oceanographic research and myriad ways we are "massively exploiting the ocean's resources before exploring what's actually there." And she is candid about the difficulties scientists face trying to capture the collective imagination, especially when partnering with television channels, which may reach their desired audience but which also have an overriding imperative to entertain.
Still, Widder is optimistic about the future, though it's an optimism based on equal parts faith and conviction. She has faith in the power of science, scientists and the scientific method to solve problems, but feels strongly that humanity needs to change its approach to tackling climate change. We should focus more on our strengths, our curiosity, our need to explore and to know, Widder writes, and less on repeating the doomsday prognostications that make many politicians, citizens, and even activists too scared to act, too resigned to our inevitable failure.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.
Below the Edge of Darkness
By: Edith Widder.
Publisher: Random House, 352 pages, $28.