When Keats lamented that scientific inquiry would ‘conquer all mysteries by rule and line’ and ‘unweave a rainbow’, he was, it turns out, being unduly pessimistic. Science has revealed a vista of new wonders and brought us up sharply against the limits of what we can know. Consider, for example, as Adam Nicolson does at one point in his wonderfully wide-ranging new book, the work of Benoît Mandelbrot, the father of the fractal, who demonstrated that, in Nicolson’s words, ‘the closer you look at something, the more it remains unknown. Knowledge cannot embrace whatever it seeks to know. It can only sit alongside the world, contingent, touching it, maybe, at one or two points but shrinking beside the unaddressable and limitless actuality of things.’ Such a simple question as ‘How long is the coast of Britain?’ has no answer once you start looking closely at the actuality.
The coast of Britain – specifically the intertidal shoreline of a bay on the Morvern peninsula on the west coast of Scotland – is where this book begins and ends. Here Nicolson, fascinated by the animal and plant life revealed by the changing tides, sets out to build three rock