The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1979, Volume 25, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Review

Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Probing the Oceans, 1936-1976. By Elizabeth Noble Shor. San Diego: Tofua Press, 1978. Illustrations. Index. 502 pages. $8.95 paper. $17.95 hardback.

Reviewed by Robert E. Filner, Associate Professor of History, San Diego State University.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the oldest and largest such research center in the United States. It is an appropriate time for San Diegans to reflect upon the accomplishments and enrich our appreciation of this unique resource in our midst. Elizabeth Noble Shor’s new book allows us to do just that: We will not again be able to walk by Scripps pier without recalling decades of measurements taken and samples collected. At a Sunday outing at the aquarium, we will retell Shor’s stories of Harvey, the 100-pound grouper, and the runaway octopus. A drive past the campus will bring to mind Shor’s portraits of the dedicated men and women, the impressive sea voyages, the fun (and frustration) of oceanography.

Scripps is not an easy institution to describe-a certain penchant for anarchy (or, if you prefer, flexibility) making a neat organization chart impossible, a certain topsy-like growth characterizing its development. To Shor, Scripps is best described as “a state of mind.” And she tries to impose order on this wonderful diversity by focusing first on the various research units of Scripps (including the Marine Life Research Program, the Visibility Laboratory, the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, and the Physiological Research Laboratory) and then on the research disciplines covered by Scripps (marine biology, physical-oceanography, marine geology, and marine chemistry).

Shor introduces us to the major researchers and their projects and takes us on the important expeditions of the Scripps fleet. We see primitive measurments taken with “equipment” jerry-built with string and sealing wax develop into powerful theoretical constructions backed by electronic computers. We watch sea-sick researchers bedeviled by the “Neptune effect” (the inevitable distortion of communications between oceanographers). Scripps scientists chase grunion, mine the ocean Hoor, map ocean currents, measure the force of waves-and many of these activities are further illustrated with marvelous photographs. As a relatively new San Diegan, I was especially interested in following the career of Roger Revelle from Scripps graduate student to Director to his legendary achievement of using Scripps as a magnet to attract a new University of California campus. And, frankly, Shor contributed to my etymological knowledge with her description of the Scripps role in developing self-contained under-water breathing apparatus (SCUBA).

The book is more successful as a contribution to San Diego history than to the history of science. The Scripps role in relation to other oceanographic institutions is barely mentioned. Too often, she neglects important theoretical results in favor of more readable anecdotes about data collection. Analyses of important topics in twentieth-century science (the relationship between science and government, the social responsibility of the scientist in the context of military-sponsored research) are never attempted. For Shor, the scientist is almost saintly in his selfless dedication to truth-while contemporary historians and sociologists of science want to know more about the less-than-rational motivations and the less-than-saintly power struggles, rivalries, and competition behind scientific advance.

Still, Shor brings home with compelling force the sheer courage of hundreds of individuals in challenging the vastness and awesomeness of the world’s oceans. “Scripps Institution is always on the move,” writes Shor, “shifting, rearranging, progressing.” Her book provides all San Diegans with the basis for understanding its future course.