Simon Winchester gives a good talk

Winchester talked about his latest book, "Atlantic"

I love seeing authors speak about their works, or scholars lecturing about their areas of expertise. But for some reason, I haven’t attended many of these talks over the last couple of years. I ended a long drought on Thursday when I saw Simon Winchester discuss his new book about the Atlantic Ocean at Porter Square Books in Cambridge (check out Winchester’s website to see what he looks like).

I haven’t yet read the book. I knew nothing about Simon Winchester. But I sort of became enchanted by him over the course of his one-hour appearance. This guy knows how to tell stories. The words just flow. I wish I had written down some exact quotes of his. Instead, I just took notes on some of the interesting ideas he discussed.

Here are some things I learned:

  • The Atlantic Ocean formed about 200 million years ago when Pangea broke apart (I knew the Pangea part, but not when the separation happened).
  • Scientists project the Atlantic Ocean will cease to exist in about 175 million years once the continents have shifted and water from the ocean has been squeezed out.
  • Winchester organized his book using Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” model. Let me expand a little bit upon this:

Apparently Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It” catalogs the seven stages of man’s life as infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon (an aging buffoon), and second childhood. So Winchester organized his book into these categories. The “lover” section, for instance, discusses humans’ love for the Atlantic over time. The “soldier” section describes wars that have taken place on the Atlantic Ocean. I thought this was a very interesting way to organize the book.

  • He told an amusing story about the Faroe Islands, an island group about halfway between Great Britain and Iceland belonging to Denmark.

He told us that the inhabitants of these islands are descendants of the Vikings. Because the men aren’t at war anymore, they have lots of energy to “purge themselves of.” They accomplish this through placing sheep high up on the sides of cliffs. They leave the sheep in these dangerous spots for months as the sheep eat the lush grass and fatten up.

When the men finally return to the cliffs, they knock the sheep into the water. The sheep die, come up to the water’s surface, and are collected to be turned into food. This means that if you’re ever on a boat around these islands, you should watch out for falling sheep!

The British needed a smokeless gunpowder called cordite, which was made from acetone. Weizmann developed a way to produce acetone through bacterial fermentation. British officials learned about Weizmann’s procedure from Manchester Guardian editor C.P. Scott,  and had him share his knowledge. The British set up a cordite factory in an old whiskey factory, and the rest is history.

To thank Weizmann, British officials wanted to knight him. But he didn’t want that– he wanted a Jewish state in Palestine instead. It’s largely because of his wish that this eventually happened.

  • Tristan da Cunha is the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world. According to Winchester, who has been there before, only about 250 people live there and it’s not that interesting. It’s a lot of people growing potatoes.

Anyway, Winchester told a really funny (and true) story about how he’s banned from the island.

  • The “Skeleton Coast” in Namibia is known for its shipwrecks. Winchester actually went there to see where a ship attempting to rescue another ship crashed into the shore. He visited the graves of the two brave souls who died during this incident, and mentioned them in his book. It’s a way to keep their memory alive as many seem to have forgotten about them and their heroic efforts.

I love how Winchester took us to different parts of the Atlantic we’ve never heard of and filled us with rich imagery, poignant stories and humorous anecdotes. I really want to read this book now! For a glimpse of how Winchester talks, check out this short YouTube clip about “Atlantic”:

Advertisements
Explore posts in the same categories: Africa, Books, Cambridge, Outdoors, Travel, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

One Comment on “Simon Winchester gives a good talk”


  1. […] I got him “Atlantic” by Simon Winchester, which I’ve already blogged about. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: