The Science And History Of Whaling — Athenaeum Salon

Sounding of the Whale (12.9) Another installment in the continuing “Hark! the White Whale!” series at the Athenaeum — tonight D. Graham Burnett, Professor of the History of Science at Princeton, will discuss his new book The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century.

Part of the fascination of Moby-Dick comes from Melville’s ability to make Moby Dick himself at once mysterious, terrifying, charismatic, and sympathetic – all the more astonishing given the 19th century’s simplistic view of whales as malevolent oil wells. In the 20th century our understanding of and relationship to whales underwent some astonishing changes. Whales transformed in our minds from grotesque monsters, useful only as wallowing kegs of fat and fertilizer, to playful friends of humanity, bellwethers of environmental devastation, and, finally, totems of the counterculture in the Age of Aquarius. At the start of the century, ignorance reigned: whales were routinely misclassified, and the only biological study of the species was happening in gruesome Arctic slaughterhouses. But in the aftermath of World War I, an international effort to bring rational regulations to the whaling industry led to an explosion of global research—and  regulations that, while well-meaning, were quashed or widely flouted by whaling nations, the first shot in a battle that continues to this day.

5pm to 7pm, Friday, December 9, Providence Athenaeum, 251 Benefit Street

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