'Cold' author Bill Streever delves into the fiery side of the universe with 'Heat'

Mike Dunham
Marc Lester

In 2009 Anchorage biologist and author Bill Streever had a surprise bestseller with "Cold," a lively look at things that make you go "Brrr." Reviewers praised his "seamless blend of travelogue, history and scientific treatise" (Kirkus) and called "Cold" "Original ... flinty and tough-minded, with just enough humor glowing around the edges" (The New York Times).

In one chapter he wrote of telling a friend about the book as writing was under way; the friend suggested that his next book should be called "Warm" and that he could do all the research from a tropical beach.

Instead Streever traveled far and wide with his trusty thermometer in hand for close-up looks at the subject of his new book, "Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places." He went to California's Death Valley, to neighborhoods destroyed by wildfire, to volcanic lava floes in Hawaii, museum in Europe and an atom-smashing cyclotrons in New York.

Putting his own skin in the game, Streever likes to experience in person what he reports about. For "Cold" he immersed himself in the Arctic Ocean. For "Heat" he held his palm over a flame, swallowed a spoonful of oil, created plasma in his microwave oven and -- as indicated by the photo on the book's cover -- strolled barefoot on hot coals.

"I'd do it again in a heartbeat," he said.


Jargon made plain

"'Heat' probably wouldn't have been possible had 'Cold' not been so successful," Streever said. "The idea of a book about cold was kind of natural if you live in Alaska. I was onto what I thought was an interesting topic so I just kept walking right on to the top of the thermometer."

"Heat" is a series of connected essays, each chapter focusing on some aspect of warmth, fire, geological or astronomical furnaces and mind-boggling realms measured in trillions of degrees.

The author describes the smell of burning coal as "sinister," observing that it chases his dog from the room, but adds, "It was, at one time, the smell of progress." He lays out the history of petroleum discovery and development in Pennsylvania with the panache of a Louis L'Amour adventure and notes that this fuel still sustains the industrialized world. He explores nuclear bombs as a technological and social phenomenon in the context of the aborted "Project Chariot" scheme to blow a harbor in the coast of Northwest Alaska. He weaves in observations from and about a cast of characters that includes Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Pliny the Elder and a mummified iron age Dutch girl.

Specific subjects elide from one chapter to another. Scientific jargon is made plain. History is delivered entertainingly. The reader follows the arc of the narrative like a bird following a chain of crumbs, swallowing one detail after the next. The factoids are fascinating and sometimes gruesome; one chapter deals with how people are killed by or recover from desert conditions, another describes the human body's reaction to serious burns.

He takes readings of burning candles, smoldering peat and bubbling lava with a special thermometer that can measure temperature from a distance. He logs how many pounds of carbon he leaves in his wake with every car trip or intercontinental flight.

His attractive, direct-to-the-reader style -- writing that sounds like someone at a bar waxing freely but knowledgeably on an interesting topic -- is emphasized in the reviews of "Heat."

"A pleasing mix of first-person narrative and layman science ... served on a platter of digestible prose." (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

"A winning formula for popular-science writing." (Winnepeg Free Press)

"A fine balancing act." (San Francisco Chronicle)

The storyteller in him stays in step with the scientist; he approaches conclusions with logic, but also with caution.


Reveling in research

Streever, a biologist for BP and former chair of the North Slope Science Initiative's Science Technical Advisory Panel in Barrow, wrote several academic pieces before he wrote "Cold." He's the first to admit that it and "Heat" are not scientific books but creative non-fiction.

"I gave myself the freedom to have fun with the writing," he said, which gave him a potentially bigger audience.

The approach has precedent, he said. "In the old days, science writing was much more readable. It was more important for a scientist to be charismatic in order to be successful. The modern culture of science doesn't leave much room for this stuff. It loses a lot."

He credits his life experience to helping him step outside of the formal framework of academic literature. Born in Tennessee, he worked for some years as a commercial diver before attending college for the first time in his late 20s.

"I had a life as an adult before I had a life as a scientist," Streever told a crowd at a craft talk in Anchorage in January. "And I've had almost no training as a writer."

Whatever he lacks in training, he makes up for in effort and process, starting with stacks of research. "If you don't enjoy research, you shouldn't write nonfiction," he said.

He described writing in terms of courtship. One has several ideas and flirts among them, not making a commitment. Then you get past the casual dating stage and onto something more substantial, note-taking research.

"The outline is sort of a marriage proposal," he said. At some point he starts transferring his notes into a spreadsheet format.

"Then the writing starts and you're like newlyweds," he said. "When the revision starts, the honeymoon is over."

He said he rewrites books three times before sending them to his publisher. When the galleys come back he goes through them several more times, hunting for passive words, gender specific language and other writer no-nos.

"I'm incapable of reading my own stuff without revising it," he said, "as are most writers."


Facts in the wind

Streever happily surfs the Internet -- Wikipedia and online editions of obscure, long-out-of-print texts -- for his research. "Nowadays you can find a lot online, look up rare materials that are locked up in libraries. That wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago."

Which doesn't prevent errors from making it into the published edition. For example: The Novarupta volcano is not north of Anchorage (page 187), but southwest. The War Department couldn't have handed Camp Upton to the Department of Energy in 1947 (page 262) since the department wasn't created or named until 1977; Streever apparently means one of DOE's predecessors.

"Obviously, no one ever gets all the facts right," Streever said at the craft talk.

Hence his assiduous attention to revisions. "I've always been shy about my writing, not defensive but a little embarrassed. I think once people become overconfident they lose their edge. So I'm always going back, knowing that I didn't get it all right. The important thing is to be as true to the facts as possible."

As one fact leads to another, so Streever's books tend to generate their own sequels. "Cold" led to "Heat." The finale of "Heat" describes the 7 trillion degree Fahrenheit temperature triggered by the collision of gold particles in a laboratory. The book he's working on now is titled "Gold." It will cover the chemistry and history of the element, its place in mining industry and finance.

He'll have more time for the research, spreadsheets and revisions. He plans to retire from BP soon. "It's been a high stress job," he said. "It's really time for something different."

Instead of tramping in the Alaska wilderness and poking for cold-proof caterpillars on the arctic tundra, he hopes to be traveling with little in the way of timetables or carbon emissions.

"My wife and I plan to move onto a boat," he said. "We'll sail around and I'll write a book about wind."


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.