Wanted: good custodians to tame tantrums of 'child'

Our Affair with El Niño
September 24, 2004

El Niño is a periodic climatic phenomenon with global impact that has its origins in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. It is George Philander's medium rather than his message. "The purpose of this book is to help improve communication between scientists and non-scientists by taking advantage of the interest everyone has in El Nino." Consequently, discussions about the financial, political and social impacts are brief and scattered.

Philander's message is clear. "Solutions to serious environmental problems will elude us unless we are well aware of and respect the profound differences between the worlds of science and human affairs."

You will not find a linear progression of ideas from a well-defined beginning to a clear-cut end. Rather, a collection of essays, loosely grouped into five parts, explores different perspectives on our attempts to understand the natural environment, with El Niño as a case history. The chapters vary markedly in style and pace, from the almost whimsical first-person account of the life of "The cloud" (with help from Shelley) to the detailed physics of ocean circulation. The writing is lucid and engaging but, since every chapter is in effect a self-contained essay, there is significant repetition of the basic ideas. Nonetheless, with each encounter the varying perspectives enrich one's understanding. This is an effective didactic strategy, which emphasises the difference between the human, linear (time's arrow) view of progress and the natural, periodical (time's cycles) sense of development.

A description of the origins and impacts of El Niño ("Who is El Niño?") from four distinct perspectives traces our growing understanding of its significance. Complex ideas are unfolded in an accessible and enjoyable fashion, and El Niño is revealed as one part of a periodic phenomenon with the more energetic, fertile and feminine La Niña  as its counterpart. The difficult interface between scientists, with their organised scepticism, and policy-makers is explored with the sensitivity of one who has been deeply involved ("Our dilemma"). An excellent discussion on bridging the gulf between scientist and citizen is followed by a somewhat cynical account of the engulfing of "small" creative science by "big" committee-driven science.

The high point is an enlightening comparison of the perspectives of the scientist with those of the artist ("The common ground") since "all search for order, for unity in nature's bewildering variety". Science and art are melded in three excellent chapters considering respectively the painter, poet and musician. Sandwiched uncomfortably between these accounts and the essay on "the cloud" is a discussion of the complementary perspectives of "hard" and "soft" science. This challenges "the common delusion that precise prediction is the hallmark of science".

The science is tackled head-on in a more demanding fashion in the section "A brief history of the science". This requires, and will repay, careful reading. The final brief case studies of the human response to El Niño ("Coping with hazards") address vitally important issues, but they cry out for more detailed and authoritative treatment.

Philander concludes that "to be responsible custodians of planet Earth, all of us should have some familiarity with its history and have a rudimentary understanding of the processes that permit a great diversity of species to flourish". This book provides you with the opportunity to get up to speed.

Michael Whitfield is honorary visiting professor in marine science, Plymouth University.

Our Affair with El Niño

Author - S. George Philander
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 5
Price - £17.50
ISBN - 0 691 11335 1

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