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Noah's Flood

by Walter Pitman and William Ryan
Simon & Schuster

Time and again, Earth scientists have brought truths to light that replace our cherished myths with new stories of a different order of grandeur. Charles Darwin, who toppled the last remnants of the Biblical creation story, is probably the best known. William Ryan and Walter Pitman, the authors of Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event that Changed History, are marine geologists who hope to do the same for the legend from the book of Genesis. The Flood, they argue, really did happen—but not the way we have come to think.

Ryan and Pitman paint a vivid picture of the dawn of ancient agricultural society some 7,500 years ago. The state of the Earth's climate was such that the oceans sat lower than today, and the Black Sea, cut off from the salty Mediterranean, had dried up and turned to a relatively shallow freshwater lake. Farming societies lived on the fertile lands around that sweet sea and fished in its waters, some 400 feet below the place where today the Bosporus strait runs past Istanbul, Turkey.

The climate slowly warmed, and the sea rose until the inevitable day when the Mediterranean crept over the threshold of the Bosporus. That first salty trickle quickly became a rush, then a roar as the cataract deepened its rocky bed, increasing its own erosive flow in a terrible cycle of feedback. Within days it was a solid wall of water, a horizontal Niagara hundreds of feet deep. A shroud of spray rose high into the air, stabbed with lightning day and night, and the throb of the outpouring could be heard and felt everywhere across the dying lake: a warning to flee.

In only a few months the lake became today's Black Sea, the water rising at first by half a foot a day. The people of the lake were hard put to escape with their lives, either scrambling for the hills with only what they could carry or paddling to a receding shore in small boats, moving through treacherous miles of drowned forests in the bitter waters. The dreadful story of this lost Eden would resound down the centuries, preserved in sagas by the scattered peoples of the lake.

This harrowing scenario is the six-page prologue that opens the book. Ryan and Pitman then journey through two centuries of pioneering archaeology in the Middle East, plus two decades of 20th-century seafloor research, that underlie this new picture of the Flood. And they work hard to populate these intertwined stories with the people behind the discoveries. Among those are the founders of two great sciences, archeology and geology, and many people still living, including the authors themselves, presented in the third person.

The story of the Flood is basically simple, and the story of the people of the Flood is also compelling. Both of these stories are given a satisfying treatment by Ryan and Pitman, who have an eye for drama that tempers their enthusiasm for detail.

The third story in Noah's Flood—how the Flood was discovered in the scientific evidence—is much harder to bring to the general reader. As Ryan and Pitman recount how each piece of hard-won evidence was unearthed and where it fits in the puzzle, it sometimes feels like reading a mystery where the murder is solved in chapter 1 and explained for the rest of the book. But this is really how scientific progress is made, as dozens of researchers scattered around the world share their results in hopes of finding new connections among them. While new evidence continues to come in, and while the experts wrangle over the meaning of the data (Ryan and Pitman's thesis is by no means accepted), the essence of this story as science in the making is as true as ever.

Ryan and Pitman dress their story up with human characters, too, and the moments of wild surmise that punctuate years of scientific toil—whether in lecture halls or on the decks of ships—are well drawn. The general reader will appreciate these vignettes. And for students and lovers of Earth science, this third story is the most compelling of all, because the life that Ryan and Pitman have led is the one all scientists dream of.

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