Steinbeck and Science

Route of the Sea of Cortez expedition

John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, and though his popularity had waned in the latter stages of his career, he’s been a much-read and well-loved author for many decades. The Nobel committee cited his “sympathetic humour and keen social perception” as the hallmarks of his writing. Steinbeck’s books and stories often deal with war, class, adversity and destitution, and in his lifetime he wrote both fiction and non-fiction; the former frequently based on his real-life experiences as a journalist. But did you know Steinbeck also wrote about science?

On my recent holiday to the central coast of California, I read Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, an account of the research trip around the entire Baja California peninsula Steinbeck undertook with his good friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Monterey-based Ricketts, who served as inspiration for several of Steinbeck’s fictional characters, was a leading expert on the fauna of the Pacific intertides. In 1940, the pair set off on a 6-week specimen-gathering trip on board a chartered sardine vessel, the Western Flyer, together with the ship’s captain Tony Berry, engineer Tex, seamen Tiny and Sparky, and a cantakerous outboard motor pseudonymously referred to as the Hansen Sea-Cow.[Interestingly, Steinbeck's wife Carol also accompanied them on the trip in a bid to save their faltering marriage. They separated soon after their return, and no word is mentioned of her in the book, which wasn't published in its current form until 1951].

The book contains a fair bit of barnacle-talk but is mainly a platform for Steinbeck’s views on life, the world, politics, and science. It’s really excellent and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s into any or all of those topics. Importantly, he actually manages to interweave all these subjects that cast a new light on old questions: what is science, why do science. He talks about relativity, causality and destiny.

The start of the book contains a lot of discussion on the reason for undertaking the trip, and the reason people do science in the first place.

“The design of a book is the pattern of a reality controlled and shaped by the mind of the writer. This is completely understood about poetry or fiction, but it is too seldom realized about books of fact. And yet the impulse which drives a man to poetry will send another man into the tide pools and force him to try to report what he finds there. Why is an expedition to Tibet undertaken, or a sea bottom dredged? Why do men, sitting at the microscope, examine the calcareous plates of a sea-cucumber, and, finding a new arrangement and number, feel an exaltation and give the new species a name, and write about it possessively? It would be good to know the impulse truly, not to be confused by the “services to science” platitudes or the other little mazes into which we entice our minds [...]“

In his initial discussion on the preparations for the trip, he comments on the subjectivity of science research:

“There is a curious idea among unscientific men that in scientific writing there is a common plateau of perfectionism. Nothing could be more untrue. The reports of biologists are the measure, not of the science, but of the men themselves. There are as few scientific giants as any other kind.”

“We wanted to see everything our eyes would accommodate, to think what we could, and, out of our seeing and thinking, to build some kind of structure in modeled imitation of the observed reality. We knew that what we would see and record and construct would be warped, as all knowledge patterns are warped, first, by the collective pressure and stream of our time and race, second by the thrust of our individual personalities. But knowing this, we might not fall into too many holes—we might maintain some balance between our warp and the separate thing, the external reality [...] We knew that what seemed to us true could be only relatively true anyway. There is no other kind of observation.”

The conflict between science and religion is one of the most divisive in the philosophy of science, and indeed in the political arena, today. Steinbeck, 60 years ago, posits that both are driven by the same search for one-ness with and understanding of the world.

“[...] it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

The “elastic string of time” is a recurring theme, both in scientific and general existential context. Steinbeck comments frequently that the Indians the group encounter in the Mexican coastal towns seem to live by an entirely different clock than the rest of the world (or at least the US); and on the boat time runs differently still. He uses this as a starting point for discussing aspects of relativity, both as a concept, and as a physical process in the Universe.

“It is strange how the time sense changes with different peoples. The Indians [...] had a different time sense -”time-world” would be the better term- from ours. And we think we can never get into them unless we can invade that time-world, for this expanding time seems to trail an expanding universe, or perhaps to lead it. One considers the durations indicated in geology, in paleontology, and, thinking out of our time-world with its duration between time-stone and time-stone, says, “What an incredible interval!”. Then, when one struggles to build some picture of astro-physical time, he is faced with a light-year, a thought-deranging duration unless the relativity of all things intervenes and time expands and contracts, matching itself relatively to the pulsings of a relative universe.”

Interesting how he makes the mistake of equating a light-year with time rather than distance, I wonder why? Maybe a PhD thesis resides in a library somewhere in the world providing an explanation. He talks at length about “the strictures of the old teleologies” – the idea that processes have an intrinsic goal – “that infect our observation, causal thinking warped by hope”, that result in our abhorrence of the statement that “a thing is because it is”.

The political backdrop of the time also features in Steinbeck’s writing. As the group embarked on their trip, Europe was descending into the anarchy of World War II. Yet, he writes,

“Hitler marched into Denmark and into Norway, France had fallen, the Maginot Line was lost—we didn’t know it, but we knew the daily [sardine] catch of every boat within four hundred miles. It was simply a directional thing; a man has only so much. And so it was with the chartering of a boat. The owners were not distrustful of us; they didn’t even listen to us because they couldn’t quite believe we existed. We were obviously ridiculous.”

The war features heavily in many of Steinbeck’s books, inluding in Cortez, albeit in a more subtly unsettling way as the expedition was unaware of the events that occurred during their trip (and the US was at that point not yet involved in WWII). In addition, the quote to me emphasises something that is often forgotten or misunderstood when we talk about educationng “the public” about science. There’s a lot more to it than telling them about new discoveries, or showing them role models. There’s a lot of people who don’t quite believe that we exist – fiddling with pixels, containing information from outer space, for months on end, and claiming that somehow it should matter to them? That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to engage with these people, we just need a very different approach to those we use to entice the typical Guardian reader.

The book is packed with fascinating insights, and just overall great Steinbeckiness. It’s also a very funny book.

Next to marriage settlement or sentence of death, a ship’s charter is as portentous a document as has ever been written. Penalties are set down against both parties, and if on some morning the rising sun should find your ship in the middle of the Mojave Desert you have only to look again at the charter to find the blame assigned and the penalty indicated.

The outboard motor, the Hansen Sea-Cow, in particular is a comic thread throughout the book.

Our Hansen Sea-Cow was not only a living thing but a mean, irritable, contemptible, vengeful, mischievous, hateful living thing. [...] When and where these ghoulish little motors learn to reproduce themselves the human species is doomed. For their hatred of us is so great that they will wait and plan and organize and one night, in a roar of little exhausts, they will wipe us out.[...] It is more than a species. It is a whole redefinition of life.[...] It loved no one, trusted no one. It had no friends.

The Sea-Cow did not run that day but it seemed to enjoy having its flywheel spun.

Anyway, there’s far too much to talk about for me to sum up in this post. Just go read it.

Some asides….

In 2006, during my first trip to central California, I took a little pilgrimage to the Steinbeck Center in his birthplace, Salinas. It’s an odd appearance in a rather uninspiring town (sorry, Salinas) that you probably would never stop off in for any other reason, unless you needed a tractor, or some lettuce. I was the only visitor there for the whole duration of my visit, but the staff were lovely and the exhibits were actually very interesting. So if you enjoy reading Steinbeck or are interested in the socio-political and economic history of the US in the mid-20th century, it’s worth a visit.

The Steinbeck Center is currently holding an essay writing competition inspired by Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, where he talks about his trip around the United States, late in his life, with his poodle Charley. A wonderful book. So if you’ve recently travelled with your dog, and feel inspired, write about it. Details here.

In 2004, scientists from the Hopkins Marine station in Monterey and the Instituto Nacional de Ecologia in Mexico recreated Steinbeck and Ricketts’ expedition to the Sea of Cortez as an educational project. Read about it here.


  1. nice


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