STARS BENEATH THE SEA: The Pioneers of Diving, by Trevor North. 281 pages, illustrated. Carroll & Graf, $25
“Stars Beneath the Sea” is a history of man under the sea as told by a standup comic, or perhaps P.J. O’Rourke on his best day.
The most interesting of his characters are three Englishmen, John Haldane, his son J.B.S. and Cameron Wright, who were eccentrics of the sort that English privilege produces so prolifically. But the non-English pioneers (mainly French) were odd, too.
Probably it takes someone a little crazy to put his head underwater and leave it there.
Men — and women, too — have dived for a long time but the rewards of free diving are restricted. The ability to spend long periods underwater opened vast areas of important knowledge, and the systematic approach to devising ways to do that was itself an important source of new knowledge.
Diving, mining, aviation and medicine were positively interfertile in producing revolutionary insights into human physiology. It was this period — the 60 years of research by the Haldanes and Wright beginning around 1900 — that was the most important, but non-scientists had their contributions to make.
North is a diver and marine biologist who knew some of his subjects personally. He has a knowing way with words and a mordant wit.