Simon Winchester’s latest book, PACIFIC: SILICON CHIPS AND SURFBOARDS, CORAL REEFS AND ATOM BOMBS, BRUTAL DICTATORS, FADING EMPIRES, AND THE COMING COLLISION OF THE WORLD’S SUPERPOWERS reinforces why I am such a fan and admirer of this eclectic social scientist. No matter what topic Mr. Winchester takes on he has the uncanny ability to unwind what is a standard interpretation or history of a well-known topic and ferret out little known details to make something that is quite interesting, fascinating. The list of Winchester’s books are impressive, whether he is exploring the history of the Atlantic, the men responsible for the creation of the English Oxford Dictionary, the annihilation of the volcano island of Krakatoa, or the story of the geologist, William Smith and how he geologically mapped the underside of the earth, and many more, the reader emerges educated and entertained by a master story teller.
In his current venture, Winchester explores historical aspects of the Pacific Ocean or in contemporary parlance the Pacific Rim. Winchester is a social scientist par excel lance, employing history, political science, geography, and geology as he explores his diverse topics. Where else can a reader learn about such a conglomeration of stories? He begins his journey by describing a flight over the Pacific beginning in Hawaii and immediately provides a history of the international dateline and the importance of this massive ocean on our daily lives. The blue expanse of the Pacific dominates the planet and encompasses one-third of the earth’s surface and forty-five percent of the planet’s surface waters. Despite its beauty and hidden treasures Winchester describes how the Pacific has been a dumping ground throughout modern history. America and its allies have conducted nuclear tests in the Marshall and Gilbert Islands among other locations. Biological testing has contaminated numerous islands and two million gallons of Agent Orange are stored near the Johnson Atoll Islands and rockets carrying atomic weapons have exploded in the region. What has been created is an ecological nightmare in many places. It is a shame as Winchester correctly points out that “the Pacific Ocean is the inland sea of tomorrow’s world,” much in the same way the Mediterranean Sea was in the Ancient world, and the Atlantic Ocean was for the modern world. Therefore improving our knowledge of the ocean and preserving it as best we can is so important.
Winchester concentrates his narrative from 1950 to 2014 as he describes the Pacific Ocean as an “atomic ocean” because of all the nuclear testing. The narrative of events that he presents in each chapter seem unrelated, but taken as a whole we witness an important history of the Pacific. Winchester’s first self-contained chapter describes the story of the Bikini Islands and the effects of the testing of the hydrogen bomb. He then moves on to the invention of the transistor radio in the 1960s and its impact on society. Winchester then introduces us to the film Gidget as an introduction to the importance of surfing and the industry it spawned to the Pacific culture. We next meet the “hermit kingdom” of North Korea and revisit the Pueblo Affair of 1968 and other incidents that make the Pyongyang government so dangerous, even today. Those interested in Australia will visit her history and her evolution from a backward, racist society to a more enlightened one in the 1970s and its reversion to its former “Crocodile Dundee” reputation after 1989 as it can’t seem to make up its mind as to whether it wants to be a Pan Pacific version of Canada and the United States or a backward mulish and racist country that cannot decide if it wants to accept non-whites as immigrants for their country. Another issue that is extremely important for Australia is its approach to its coral reefs that have been damaged and are threatened with disappearance sooner than scientists ever imagined. As Winchester aptly points out, the Australian government must decide what is more important, mining interests or the natural ecology of its coastline.
(Mt. Pitubo eruption in the Philippines on June 15, 1991)
Winchester dissects weather patterns, natural resources, plant life, tectonic mayhem, ecology, i.e.; describing areas of the Pacific as “garbage gyres,” through various discoveries and how they affect us. Of course, no history of the Pacific could be complete without a discussion of China’s evolution into a major economic and military power and what that means for the future of the Pacific region and the planet in general. This evolution is reported in pure Winchesteresque manner as the author relates the Mount Pitubo volcanic eruption in the Philippines on June 15, 1991, the second largest volcanic eruption of the last century, to the decline of the American naval presence in the Pacific to the emergence of the Chinese goal of projecting a deep blue water navy. The eruption resulted in the loss of the Subic Bay Naval and Clark Airforce bases in the region and created a military vacuum that the Chinese have been eager to fill. Winchester describes numerous examples of how the Chinese have projected their newly acquired naval power in the South China Sea, the Yellow Sea, and the East China Sea and what it has meant to its Asian neighbors and has resulted in a number of close encounters with American ships and planes.
(the author, Simon Winchester)
There are so many interesting and insightful tidbits that Winchester puts forth in the narrative, that readers of many different interests will be satiated. The role of the Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs and President Truman’s decision to allow thermonuclear testing in the Pacific in 1950 and its implication for our world is most important. Winchester’s descriptions of the Marshallese people and the destruction of their culture is never talked about by historians. As a young boy I used to listen to New York Yankee baseball games on a small Sony transistor radio under my pillow never thinking about how it got there. The chapter on Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka and their discoveries that morphed into the Sony Corporation is fascinating as the consumer electronics industry that was born in Tokyo is detailed and finally explains what was hidden under my pillow for many baseball calendars. With the transistor radio in hand Winchester moves on to the art of surfing. Known as “wave gliding” for over a century Winchester describes how the release of an “unexceptional film” in conjunction with the discovery of new materials created the polyurethane surf board that took a Polynesian invention and transformed it into a worldwide sport and industry. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the book is Winchester’s discussion of the relationship between the creation of the 38trh parallel after World War II separating North and South Korea, the seizure of the USS Pueblo, and the sinking of the RMS Queen Elizabeth and how their intertwining leads the reader to the explanation of the end of the colonization of Hong Kong and its emergence under Chinese control in 1997. The Alvin, a three person submersible is described as it allowed scientists from Woods Hole, MA to locate many of the most significant deep-seas structures and assisted in the undersea mapping of the Pacific’s mid-ocean range system causing armies of geophysicists to uncover amazing discoveries. Along the way Winchester introduces us to many inventors, political figures, scientists, and everyday people that have impacted our daily lives, yet most of us will have never run across them. These and many other aspects of the book, particularly Winchester’s discussion of the interplay between Polynesian culture and the west will provide hours of entertainment and thought for any reader.
Simon Winchester not only is an excellent social scientist, he is a wonderful stylist and his writing is very easy to digest as your eyes fly across the pages. PACIFIC is a fascinating work of many social sciences and is the type of book that should produce a wide audience, I give it five stars!