Summary and book reviews of The Brilliant Abyss by Helen Scales

The Brilliant Abyss

Exploring the Majestic Hidden Life of the Deep Ocean, and the Looming Threat That Imperils It

by Helen Scales

The Brilliant Abyss by Helen Scales X
The Brilliant Abyss by Helen Scales
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  • Published:
    Jul 2021, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Grace Graham-Taylor
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Book Summary

"The oceans have always shaped human lives," writes marine biologist Helen Scales in her vibrant new book The Brilliant Abyss, but the surface and the very edges have so far mattered the most. "However, one way or another, the future ocean is the deep ocean."

A golden era of deep-sea discovery is underway. Revolutionary studies in the deep are rewriting the very notion of life on Earth and the rules of what is possible. In the process, the abyss is being revealed as perhaps the most amazing part of our planet, with a topography even more varied and extreme than its Earthbound counterpart. Teeming with unsuspected life, an extraordinary interconnected ecosystem deep below the waves has a huge effect on our daily lives, influencing climate and weather systems, with the potential for much more―good or bad depending on how it is exploited. Currently the fantastic creatures that live in the deep―many of them incandescent in a world without light―and its formations capture and trap vast quantities of carbon that would otherwise poison our atmosphere; and novel bacteria as yet undiscovered hold the promise of potent new medicines. Yet the deep also holds huge mineral riches lusted after by many nations and corporations; mining them could ultimately devastate the planet, compounded by the deepening impacts of ubiquitous pollutants and rampant overfishing.

Eloquently and passionately, Helen Scales brings to life the majesty and mystery of an alien realm that nonetheless sustains us, while urgently making clear the price we could pay if it is further disrupted. The Brilliant Abyss is at once a revelation and a clarion call to preserve this vast unseen world.



If you were to sail out into the open ocean and drop a glass marble over the side of the boat, for the first six or seven minutes it would fall through the uppermost layer of water, the part where the sun still shines. Some call this the epipelagic or euphotic zone, or simply the sunlit zone. It's the most familiar part of the oceans, where most of the known species live, and it's where all the oceans' photosynthesis takes place. The sun-catchers come in the form of large seaweeds as well as microscopic, single-celled creatures, collectively known as phytoplankton, which all suck in carbon dioxide and turn it into food for almost all the rest of ocean life.

As the marble drops, the sunlight fades until, at around 660 feet, there is just enough dim blue light to see by but not enough to power photosynthesis, and phytoplankton venture no deeper (at least while they're still alive). Here the marble enters the deep. Below, horizontal zones are laid out one above the other, like ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The most outlandish creations of science fiction can't hold a candle to the inhabitants of the abyss, and I enjoyed the even-handed way Scales bestows her attention on them. The great whales that "headbutt the sky" are lavished with as much admiration as the minute Osedax worms that feast on their decaying bones, which gave me an equal appreciation for both. In this way, the author subtly expresses the significance of even the smallest species for the health of the marine ecosystem — a point that becomes important later, when she outlines the both the current and potential threats to this ecosystem...continued

Full Review Members Only (602 words).

(Reviewed by Grace Graham-Taylor).

Media Reviews

New Republic
Fascinating ... The book's purview is technically all of history, but the incredible paucity of interaction people have had with the deep sea means that most of the information here takes the form of news delivered as a dire, last-minute warning.

New Scientist (UK)
Weaving together the latest discoveries with well-known examples, [Scales] details the many fascinating adaptations that life has evolved to survive in a world unlike anything at Earth's surface...The Brilliant Abyss is an enjoyable and accessible introduction to the deep sea, told with a passion that I found infectious. The stories of life's struggle for survival beneath the waves are compelling and Scales is particularly evocative when describing hydrothermal vents...Scales brings to life this important part of our planet.

Daily Telegraph (UK)
It is, indeed, weirdness all the way down, and Scales's bestiary is a wonderful introduction to its variety...Scales's enthusiasm for her subject is matched by a gift for visual evocation...The book also has a crusading message, which is that we depend on the ocean more than we realise, and are harming ourselves the more we harm it.

New Statesman
Written by a highly articulate expert in the field, [The Brilliant Abyss is] so comprehensive and insightful that it will be a long time before it's surpassed

Geographical
As with her previous best-selling books, Scales has an uncanny ability to make complex science engaging and entertaining.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Scales offers crisp, engaging prose, linking everything together in an accessible, entertaining manner...A captivating nature tour and a convincing warning that 'the deep needs decisive, unconditional protection.'

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Marine biologist Scales tours the lightless depths of the ocean and showcases its denizens in this show-stopping work...This vivid survey hits the mark as an awe-filled paean to the mysteries of the deep.

Booklist (starred review)
Scales writes of the astonishingly small group of scientists who explore the ocean's greatest depths ... It is the author's lush descriptive language and the breadth of her knowledge that truly stand out.

Library Journal (starred review)
A fascinating international glimpse of Earth's last frontier that will draw in readers concerned for the health of our oceans.

Author Blurb Aimee Nezhukumatathil, bestselling author of World of Wonders
Helen Scales offers up an abundance of wondrous revelation and wise warnings in this mesmerizing consideration of the vibrant world of darkness under the sea. This is essential, unforgettable reading about our marvelous blue planet.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Rare Earth Metals and Global Politics

Wind turbines in Southern California In The Brilliant Abyss, Helen Scales draws attention to growing international interest in rare earth mining. Rare earths look set to overtake fossil fuels as the most valued energy resource on the planet, as they are key to producing green technology. What will this profound shift mean for oil- and gas-producing countries?

In the 20th century, the struggle to secure oil and gas resources was a defining feature of international relations. Now that we are facing an imminent climate crisis, the era of global reliance on fossil fuels must come to an end. Think tank the Carbon Tracker Initiative has predicted that the value of gas, coal and oil will decline by two-thirds over the coming years, as countries work to meet the targets set by ...

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