Ms. Adventure: My Wild Explorations in Science, Lava, and Life
© 2021 Jess Phoenix
Some scientists work in nice, safe labs, with bright lights and sanitized equipment, and their greatest fear is that grant funding will fall through next year. Other scientists hike into the calderas of volcanoes, spend weeks on the open sea far from land, and occasionally fall into Peruvian sewers, covering their Intrepid Explorer pants with a not-so-attractive layer of caca de Cuzco. Jess Phoenix is that other kind of scientist, and here she recounts her global adventures in the service of geology — and her own insatiable curiosity. A mix of travel, adventure, and gritty geological labor, Ms. Adventure demonstrates how exciting and dangerous science work can still be in the 21t century. Although the science content sometimes takes a backseat to Phoenix’s memoir, her travel adventures are not without interest, either from the sheer comedy of falling into a sewer, the drama of cartel gunslingers trying to raid the scientists’ camp, or the behind-the-scenes look at Discovery nature documentaries.
I was drawn to this book immediately by the cover, which accurately captures the extreme environments geologists often work in. Phoenix draws on expeditions throughout her academic and professional career, from her student first experience on a survey (camping in Death Valley, and looking for evidence of its long-gone shallow ocean), to later travels in which she was a fully published and vetted geologist, sometimes the only one present on a given project. Phoenix worked multiple sites across Hawaii and South America, and these constitute the bulk of the book, spanning environments from lava fields, the open ocean, and the soaring heights of Peru. Phoenix and her coworkers are often in danger, particularly when operating around volcanoes: some lava fields are not as old and hardened as they appear, and active volcanoes have a startling tendency to throw car-sized blobs of lava at research teams. Not all of the dangers are from the natural world, though: in Peru the scientists are raided by members of a cartel. The science content is largely centered around volcanoes, which is understandable given how spectacular and dangerous they can be — and how long they’ve fascinated the human cultures exposed to them. Phoenix’ descriptions of lava fields and the ominous sounds coming from beneath the Earth were particularly effective at commanding the reader’s imagination. Phoenix offers a general narrative of her travel experiences that goes into the mundane details, and this can sometimes make the book feel a bit padded, but there are other non-science passage that more than make up for that, particularly her recounting of Discovery filming an episode of her and her team: the producer’s frequent attempts to stage accidents and drama frustrated Phoenix’ hope for a depiction of Real Science, and made me (a frequent viewer of science documentaries) wonder how much of what we see is a total fabrication. Phoenix is at her best when writing on the universal human heritage of curiosity, and how it enriches our lives and drives progress.
This mix of science and travel may lean a little heavier on the travel than it should at times, but takes us to breathtaking places with a guide whose passion for scientific enterprise and physical courage is inspiring.
I was standing on rock-solid proof of our planet’s life. Our world is still one of creation in addition to the destructive side we usually witness when geologic forces are in play. Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano, is still active. It had erupted last within my lifetime, before the tragic end of the Challenger space shuttle and the world-changing fall of the Berlin Wall had etched themselves on our global consciousness. I was walking on earth younger than I was, and it reminded me of a true marriage of art and science, the famous lines of eighteenth-century geologist James Hutton: “The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, -no prospect of an end.”
Here was the planet, pouring out the same elements contained in stardust, reshaping itself right in front of me. I was a voyeur, witnessing an ancient act too raw and powerful for humans to comprehend. Creation and destruction. Two halves of the same whole. The process would repeat again and again until our world’s fiery core cooled and convected no more.
Staying within the known guardrails of a single discipline or subdiscipline seemed artificial and limiting, an affront to the innate drive to question and explore that led me to science. My ability to ask questions would be the fuel that sustained the fire for knowledge I felt burning hot and tight in my chest, driving me to challenge my own perceptions and the world around me, always in search of answers.
Phoenix appeared as a guest on the generally-fantastic Ologies podcast, a fun science series covering a staggering variety of specialties.
The Last Stargazers, Emily Levesque. More science meets adventure, but with more science. Also features volcanoes in Hawaii.
Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Allure of Human Rubble, Marilyn Johnson. More science adventures in demanding locales.