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April 21, 2011 / kohei78

The secret under the bule water

Title page of 20000 league under the sea

Since the ancient era of Greek myth, human being has kept imaging the world under the sea, for instance, the French great novelist; Jules Verne revealed the mysterious world in his classic.  In that novel, readers share the undersea adventure with Professor Aronnax, witness the wonderful creatures such as a giant squid, and gained vivid knowledge.

And now, in his article “20,000 Microbes under the sea”, Rovert Kunzig takes us to another journey fulfilled with intellectual excitement.

What’s under the water?

Image credit: © drew Roberts 

The author has visualized a totally unique ecosystem in the bottom of the sea.  At there, Achaea, an ancient group of microbes is having a quite unique life-cycle.  One group of them transfers hydrogen and carbon, extracted from organic sediments, into methane.  The other group of Achaea consumes the methane, and provides energy for their partner in return.  In this system, methane works as a currency of their metabolism. It has the amount of layered phases, and have built massive physical structure at the seafloor.

The author has also introduced us the astounding facts, such as the total mass of these microbes consists of 30% of the whole biomass on the earth, the total amount of methane, that have stored under the seafloor in state of hydrate, may larger than the every existing fossil fuels.  More surprisingly, this amount of methane could trigger a massive climate change as it is strong greenhouse gas.

The vivid writing.

These facts are truly impressive; however, the author’s true talent has been shown in describing those ideas in vivid expression.  For instance, in order to describe the unique ecology, the author has written like this,

“Seifert saw chimneys—black, knobby spires, the tallest rising more than 13 feet off the seafloor. (partially omitted) The pilot prodded one with Jago’s hydraulic arm. It was soft, like flesh. He knocked one over, felling it as if it were a tree to reveal its cross-section. Under a black outer layer there was a thick layer of pink and a core that was harder and greenish gray”.

These sentences are simple but strong, direct and evokes our imagination.

Apart from dramatic writing, the author is also talented at accurate description.  He has used good metaphor, like this,

“ The mats on the seafloor there, and the walls of the chimneys, are a thick patchwork of methane-eating archaea and sulfate-reducing bacteria. “

Appropriate use of metaphor, simplification and different wording have helped our understandings, and expand the visual images.

This article tells us astounding facts, dramatic scenery and thrilling story, and It has also proven the fact that the best science writing also could be a first class entertainment, and in this case, the author’s talented writing skills are definitely hitting the crucial points.



Kunzig, R. (2005). 20,000 microbes under the sea. In T. Folger (Ed) The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2005 (pp 125-140). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Web ver.

Photo Credit

Tittle page of 20000 league under the sea: Public domain image, taken from

Bubble image : photo &copy; <A HREF=>drew Roberts</A>
for CC:Attribution-ShareAlike



Leave a Comment
  1. cgak05 / May 22 2011 6:40 am

    Hi Kohei,

    I agree with you that the author has great writing skills. It can be tough to make science writing interesting as we tend to have this idea that science writing needs to be firstly, yes, jargon free, but also, it has to make sense. Hence, most sceince writers tend to use very formal tones of writing as they may feel that by writing in such a tone, it would seem to make their work more credible.

    On the other hand, this authors has made science writing interesting by writing it in a formal yet story-telling style of writing. The choice of words engages readers to use their five senses to imagine how a particular thing may look, smell or feel. Choice of words used are espeically helpful for readers who might not have seen or heard of such a sea creature or sea plant. Hence, I have to say great job on adding an image with your entry.

    • Kohei / May 26 2011 10:04 am

      Thank you for your comment cgk05.

      Yes, as you mentioned, the author made great job in balancing between use of the emotional tone for delivering exiting discoverey, and the calm tone for stating facts.
      Since this article was originally published on web, there could be slight difference on the tone of writing, but I think it is not such big dirrerence.
      I think this article is a good example of good science writing does not always require calm tone.

  2. winnieoctavia / May 25 2011 4:07 pm

    Hi Kohei,

    The images that you have chosen just fits nicely with your topics. Visual do help alot for reader to be able to engage to the whole story especially in science when most of the time they are quite boring. Not because of the facts in that written piece of work that is boring but the way science writing needed to be done are in more formal type of writings. Other than that this author really did a great job in telling the under water world in a way that tells the reader to visualize the story he was telling.

    • Kohei / May 26 2011 10:32 am

      Thank you for your comment winnie,

      If you’ve checked the original article (on the web), you must have found more inspiring images.
      I considerd about borrowing those image here, but I didn”t, instead of that, I’ve chosen simple “bubble” image, because I wanted to reader think about “What does it mean?”

      Good images can help us imagining the situation, but sometimes I worry about opposit situation.
      If we provided poor image, It could fix our imagination in limited area. For example, if you post a blog article about a beautiful flower with a poorly taken photo, the readers may think “ah, it’s not such beautiful at all”, even if you have written wonderful poetic sentences. That’s why i think use of image has great influence for whole article.

      I think the author made really great effort for illustrate vivid images directly into reader’s mind, with nothing but words, like great french novelist, Jules velne did. (I must confess that I’m a his great fan.)

  3. kizi817 / May 28 2011 6:58 am

    Hi Kohei,
    Very good blog. I agree with your thinking about this article. This book is really great, which has some metaphor and simplification. Entertainment in science writing sometimes is indispensable, such as the book there are many methods of expression. In this book, there are different parts from other books, but it still is a science book. Interesting pursuit of Popular Science Writings can be accurate and reliable; it is not only the exchange of scientists with the jargon by accurate words. Overall, this book did very well.

    In the past, science books were always entangled on the accuracy of the article. Entanglement cost is heavy, fewer and fewer people reading science books. I think if there are some passages in simple terms, this is truly respected for readers.
    Yuchao Yang

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