Sailing southern right whale

Article: Carl Zimmer (Phenomena) on the science of Moby-Dick

Carl Zimmer, a writer for the National Geographic Phenomena blog, was commissioned to write a commemorative piece on the science of Herman Melville’s whaling novel Moby Dick. I recently listened to the audiobook (all 26 hours of it – I have a long commute), so I am reminded just how many chapters of the book Melville devotes to scientific descriptions of different types of whales, whale fossils, and whale ecology. It is quite exhausting, especially when one wants the story to progress!

Zimmer’s article is a sensitive critique of the state of scientific knowledge in Melville’s time, and a beautiful reminder of what we have learned since then. The emphasis in the quote below is mine:

Today, over 160 years after the publication of Moby Dick, it takes some work to put ourselves in Melville’s shoes, and to understand science as it existed in the 1840s. The human-centered scheme of the Enlightenment is long gone. Today, we know that our species did not exist at the birth of the world a few thousand years ago. Homo sapiens is 200,000 years old, one of billions of species to exist on a 4.568 billion year old planet—one planet among quadrillions of planets sprinkled across the universe, which itself formed 13 billion years ago.

As humbling as these discoveries may be, the startling fact remains that we made them. We achieved this knowledge about the universe using our limited brains. In hindsight, we can see that Melville was too pessimistic about what science can tell us about the world. And just as Melville used whales to critique science, today we can use whales to critique Melville. Many of mysteries about whales that Melville considered impenetrable are now solved.

Doesn’t this amaze and thrill you? Even if you’re not familiar with Moby-Dick, I encourage you to read Zimmer’s article – it can be found here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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