Book review: The Explorer Gene, by Tom Cheshire

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 10:18am

The Explorer Gene
by Tom Cheshire
Short Books
3 stars

Kit Gillet

On January 23, 1960, Swiss explorer Jacques Piccard set down at the deepest depths of the ocean, 10,911 metres below the surface. Crammed into a glorified tin can built to withstand the crushing pressure of the water, he and a colleague achieved what he'd previously described as "the last great geographic conquest": to become the first men to reach the lowest depths possible on the planet. It was a feat that would not be repeated until 2012.

Waiting for Jacques' return were his father, Auguste Piccard, who had helped design the craft and had himself been the first man to fly a manned balloon kilometres up into the stratosphere, and his two-year-old son, Bertrand, who would later become the first person (again, with a colleague) to circumnavigate the globe in a non-stop balloon flight.

These three generations of Piccards helped push the boundaries of science, technology and exploration throughout the 20th and beginning of the 21st century. Their trials and tribulations are the stuff of legends, so it is apt that they are now chronicled in depth in a new book.

Auguste, the genius and eccentric professor, sketched mechanical diagrams on the blackboard using both hands simultaneously to speed up the process, and when he wanted to measure the activity of cosmic rays he took on the task of going higher than any man before. On May 27, 1931, he climbed inside a pressurised aluminium capsule he had designed which was strapped underneath a large hydrogen balloon. Where others failed he succeeded, travelling more than 15km up, though not without a few near misses.

Jacques then took up the mantle, with father and son working for more than a decade to successfully reach the bottom of the ocean, beating several other teams aiming for the same record.

It is the struggles of the third generation, Bertrand, that make for the most intriguing reading. After trying to break away from the weight of his name by training as a psychiatrist, Bertrand is eventually drawn in to the competition to be the first to circle the globe in a balloon without refuelling or landing (a competition he wins, beating the likes of Richard Branson in the process). He is now focused on solar-powered flight.

While the Piccards offer inspiration to those seeking adventure and glory, The Explorer Gene also assesses the dark side of this drive: the constant fighting with financial backers, national bodies and members of their own teams, the ridicule in the press, and the unrealised projects. Of 50 experimental projects Jacques was only able to find the financial support to develop five of them.

The Piccards are rightfully lauded as scientific and exploration pioneers, but the life of a pioneer is not always easy. Tom Cheshire has done a worthy job of bringing this intriguing family to life.