THE ICE HAS had a convoluted life. In the 1980s, the American environmental historian Stephen Pyne decided to write a history of the earth sciences, including a short section on Antarctica. After a three-month stint at the bottom of the world he changed his mind: the book would be entirely about Antarctica. Then, owing to constraints of time, he changed his mind again. Instead of a I11-length work on Antarctica he would write a shorter study to complement his intellectual history of the Grand Canyon. It came out in 1986, and vanished quietly hm sight. Now it is back, hailed as (to quote from the dust jacket) 'one of the very greatest things ever written on the cultural history of the earth'.
If not exactly up to the hype, The Ice is a fascinating study of the world's least-known continent. Starting with an anatomy of ice itself, Pyne examines the shelves, sheets and glaciers that constitute Antarctica, interspersing these chapters with musings on the exploration, literature, art and geopolitics of the region. There are times when his scientific enthusiasm gets the better of his prose. ('During pack progradation floe separation is an important mechanism for promoting interstitial freezing and frazil-ice formation.') But even at his most abstruse, he produces surprising nuggets of information: the temperature at the heart of an iceberg is six degrees above freezing; the energy it