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Book Review, NRJ 66.1

February 23, 2021 8:48 AM | David Eddy

Neptune’s Laboratory: Fantasy, Fear, and Science at Sea

Antony Adler

In studying the history of oceanography, humanity’s fears and fantasies about the future are not always aspects of the topic which readily come to mind. The development of marine science as a field and the ways that it has affected conceptions about the future is explained nicely by Antony Adler, currently a research associate in the history department at Carleton College, in Neptune’s Laboratory: Fantasy, Fear, and Science at Sea. Within this work, Adler established five different periods and topics of focus: an overview of early marine science, the development of European costal marine stations, aspirations for international collaboration, later developments within the field during the Cold War, and the ways that boundaries between field and laboratory are currently blurred in marine science. By arranging his book in this manner, Adler was able to expand neatly on each of the areas and give readers a solid overview of the history of marine science with a focus on the imagined futures, anticipations, and anxieties embedded within the field.

In Neptune’s Laboratory, Adler presented each chapter remarkably well. In the first section, Adler focused heavily on the history of marine science and the way that it developed as a field, including the development of some standard procedures. This history acted as an important foundation to understand the later segments, and the reasons that developments and legal issues arose within marine science. In focusing each of the chapters on the themes of fantasy and fear, Adler’s work created a relatively comprehensive look at the ways in which individual aspirations and societal viewpoints regarding marine science changed from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the present day.

Along with containing a solid history of marine science’s development along a set theme, Neptune’s Laboratory also has the added benefit of being written in both a scholarly yet accessible manner. Adler’s sources were extensive and clearly referenced throughout the work so that points of interest have the potential to be researched further by interested readers. The book is also accessible to readers who have no previous experience on the subject, due in part to the goal Adler set for his book. Adler explained the development of the themes of anxieties and anticipations throughout the history of marine science, and did not solely provide the technical and legal features of the field.

Overall, Neptune’s Laboratory contributes nicely to the study of marine science, as it covers a wide range of topics in the broad history of the field, all connected under a unifying theme. Alder’s use of accessible and scholarly language makes it both an excellent starting place and a beneficial addition to current scholarship. Adler’s division of information provided a clear organization of content in a cohesive manner, each portion of which had an important role within the work. These features all worked together to nicely support Adler’s main goal of demonstrating the ways that fantasy and fear fit into scientific research on maritime topics and the ways that humanity’s and individuals’ perceptions of the future have helped to lead to important developments in marine science.

  • New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019
  • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, 241 pages
  • Illustrations, notes, index. $39.95
  • ISBN: 9780674972018

Reviewed by Bethany Earley, East Carolina University

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