Graham Burnett’s The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press, 2012) is an astounding book. It is an inspiring work, both in the depth of research brought to bear in Burnett’s account of the emergence of twentieth-century whale science, and the sensitivity with which he renders the characters in his story. Burnett’s writing is characteristically thoughtful, elegant, and compelling. Readers will be moved, as I was, by his sensitive rendering of the amazing cast of musicians, scientists, politicians, and dreamers, humans and other creatures trying to make a world for themselves and each other. Some fail heartbreakingly, others enjoy successes small or enormous – all of this in an academic book about the history of science. (Also, there are scientists in formaldehyde, and LSD, and concerts for whales, and ladies with lipstick who make nice-nice with dolphins.) It is a must-read for historians of science, and for anyone interested in the history of whale science.
The interview opens with a laughing interviewer and closes with a shout-out by the author, both occasioned by this review of The Sounding of the Whale by Nick Black, which Burnett did a reading of before we started recording (scroll down to “Community Reviews” for the text). You’ll note a brief cut-out in the middle of the interview, at which point the iPhone technology got the better of us.