'A Sea of Glass' Shrinks the Gap Between Art and Science (Book Review)

Book review by Joe Gaydos, SeaDoc Society

A Sea of Glass: Searching for the Blaschkas' Fragile Legacy in an Ocean at Risk
By Drew Harvell
University of California Press, Oakland, California


With highly cited publications in Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and every other prestigious scientific journal you can imagine, Cornell University Professor Drew Harvell is a scientist. And honestly, scientists are not known for being art aficionados. But when Drew was appointed to curate a stunning collection of glass invertebrates purchased by Cornell in the late 1800s as a teaching tool, she had the wisdom to recognize beauty and the power it has to change us for the better. These 569 glass animal pieces were made by the famed European glass artists Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka and purchased with the help of Cornell's first President to teach land-locked students about the ocean's incredible biodiversity. Dusty, long forgotten, and often broken, these artistic pieces were still so beautiful and so true to life they compelled Harvell to undertake a worldwide quest to find their living counterparts. Like the fate of the actual glass collection since its creation 160 years ago, the world's oceans too had been neglected, not well cared for, and in more places than we care to admit, broken.

A Sea of Glass is Harvell's personal story. One where the joy of experiencing the perfection of Blaschkas' glass counterfeits actually shrinks the fabricated gap between art and science. It also takes a hard look at how the oceans have changed since the Blaschkas' created their first piece ... a time when the oceans' were unexploited, healthy, and teaming with exciting creatures, most of which had yet to be discovered or described. The fragility of our oceans and what we have done to them is well detailed in Harvell's imaginary discussion with Leopold Blaschka where she shares her passion for the artistry of the ocean's vast invertebrates and also explains to him how we have squandered the ocean's riches in our quest for improved life and material goods. After a heartfelt monologue that includes the toll that ocean acidification is already taking on so many shell-forming invertebrates, Harvell herself recognizes that the depressing story she portrays sounds more like science fiction than fact.

Just as Harvell was able to recognize the value of and restore the Blaschkas' neglected art, she too reminds us that there is so much we can do to revive our fragile oceans. In the end, Harvell's well-written story makes the reader want to create a future that generations look back on as we do the work of the Blashkas - with pride for having created something lasting and inspirational that makes the world a better place. After all, shouldn't that be the goal of both art and science?

Coming next: Gaydos reviews Robert Dash's new book, On an Acre Shy of Eternity: Micro Landscapes at the Edge