The Explorer Gene

  • Tom Cheshire
  • Atria Books/Marble Arch Press
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by J. Grigsby Crawford
  • January 10, 2014

The story of a family whose DNA compels them to push the limits of humans' earthly limitations.

“We all have explorer genes,” writes author Tom Cheshire in his debut book, which spans family, adventure and conquest. “We don’t have to go the highest, the deepest, or the furthest, to make use of them.”

But certain people do.

Meet the Piccards.

The Explorer Gene begins with the first of three generations of a family whose DNA compels them to push the limits of humans’ earthly limitations. First, in the early 1930s, Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard does what no man had done before when he builds a hot-air balloon and ascends 10 miles into the atmosphere.

Auguste, who is soon dubbed “the Columbus of space,” (although, unlike Columbus, presumably there was no one there waiting when he got to his destination) doesn’t stop with reaching for the heavens. It’s not long before he pines to go down.

Moving from balloons to deep-water diving bathyscaphes, Auguste wants to open “the doors of the abyss to man.” And pretty soon, in a submarine vessel modeled after his stratospheric balloon, he’s completing record deep dives (staying ahead of the sneaky French navy, which is never far behind).

With two-mile plunges in the Mediterranean under his belt, Auguste sets his sights on the deepest known point on Earth — a depression in the Mariana Trench known, appropriately, as the Challenger Deep. At more than 35,000 feet down, it’s deeper than Mt. Everest is tall — by more than a mile. And it’s an undertaking so heady it requires a new generation of Piccard to carry the torch.

Enter Jacques Piccard.

Three decades after his father rose into the sky and became the first human to see the curvature of the earth, Jacques (not to be confused with Jacques Cousteau, who makes an apposite appearance) wants to breach a part of the earth so remote, so deep and so foreign that no one is sure whether the water has enough oxygen to support life.

In one of the more depressing twists of modern exploration, governments want Piccard to determine if there is sea life in the trench; if not, they would see it as a suitable location to dispose of nuclear waste (!). To the relief of at least one oceanographer at the time, Jacques (maybe) saw a flatfish through his porthole.

Are there doubters? Of course. Are there snafus and setbacks? Surely. Are there naysayers who lose confidence and say he should give up? Indubitably. That all comes with the territory of being a Piccard — and makes it all the more triumphant when Jacques and his co-pilot become the first humans to lay eyes on these depths. To this day, only three people have done so (four times that number have walked on the moon). The third, interestingly, is filmmaker/swashbuckling über-adventurer James Cameron, who reminds us dear readers of his Piccard connections in the book’s foreword.

Lastly: enter Bertrand Piccard, grandson to Auguste, son to Jacques — and, perhaps most interestingly, a psychiatrist. His name may not be as recognizable worldwide as that of Sir Richard Branson, but it’s Bertrand who pushes his grandfather’s technology to the edge of the 21st century. He becomes the first to circumnavigate the globe by balloon, enduring in part by using self-hypnosis techniques.

To divulge that each Piccard completes his feat is not to give anything away. It is the tales of family, faith and endurance that Cheshire delivers with well-researched detail and elegance.

The greatest feat of all, perhaps, is that a family like the Piccards even exists. For an alarming number of the Piccards’ contemporaries, the stories follow a similar path: “He was the first to attempt [blank]; in his next trial run, he [died/blew up/crashed and burned/sank and drowned/disappeared].” Each explorer’s path to glory is lined with tombstones that read “almost.” That three individuals in a single family have achieved extraordinary “firsts” — and have lived to beget succeeding generations of explorers — is unprecedented.

The people who sent barnyard animals to the heavens in hot-air balloons in 18th-century France were surely driven by the same urge that had us sending chimpanzees into space 200 years later. The human compulsion is always there. Or, as Jacques Piccard puts it, “There’s a driving force in all of us which cannot stop, if there is yet one step beyond.” It just requires a brave few to take the actual plunge.

In a world where Google Earth and space exploration exist, and many probably question whether there remains uncharted territory, records to be broken, new boundaries to push, and new feats to conquer, Cheshire does us the favor of giving a resounding yes.

J. Grigsby Crawford is the author of The Gringo. He grew up in the Great American West and resides in Washington, D.C.

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