Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan had it right in so many ways: The media IS the message. He could not have known just how right he was to be once the “new media” emerged, long after his death 32 years ago, as a major communications tool.

For long-time independent science writer Daniel Grossman, the medium at issue here is TED Books, an innovative e-book publisher for the serious-minded.

The message involves sea-level rise, and its seeming inevitability on a warmer Earth. In particular, Grossman’s Deep Water e-book tracks his first-hand experiences as a science writer accompanying a world-class paleoclimatologist/marine geologist on her search around the world for better data on sea level.

First a bit on TED Books, a potentially valuable communications medium for scientists and experienced science writers seeking an innovative and cost–effective way of informing serious audiences.

Short on Words, but ‘Designed to Spread Great Ideas’

“Shorter than a novel, but longer than a magazine article” TED says in describing its digital books. The organization, officially TED Conferences, produces the books every two weeks, saying they are “personal and provocative, and designed to spread great ideas … long enough to unleash a powerful narrative, but short enough to be read in a single setting.” The TED Books generally run fewer than 20,000 words, and Grossman says his Deep Water is about 14,000 words.

“TED” is a nonprofit that started in 1984 with a commitment to sharing “ideas worth spreading” on issues related to Technology, Entertainment, and Design. At two annual conferences — in Long Beach/Palm Springs, Ca., and in Edinborough, Scotland — it features high-profile speakers with the challenge to “give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less).” Each conference includes presentations by some 50 different speakers.

With more than 900 “TED talks” now freely available, the group makes its videos (in English or English-subtitled) available for free under the Creative Commons release; they can be easily shared and reposted … at no cost. A recent example is NASA/Columbia University climate scientist Jim Hansen’s February 2012 Ted Talk “Why I Must Speak Out About Climate Change.”

In his Deep Water: As Polar Ice Melts, Scientists Debate How High Our Oceans Will Rise, Grossman tells of his travels with then-Boston University climatologist Maureen (“Mo”) Raymo and her research colleagues to study sea level during the Pliocene — from 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago — across Australia.

Climatologist Maureen Raymo led sea-level research field trip across Australia.

“At first, the trip’s purpose seemed arcane to me,” Grossman writes, noting that “I knew little about the Pliocene then.” But with Raymo to “tutor me in her studies,” the two went on to receive a grant to conduct and report on her continuing studies. They teamed-up with University of North Carolina/Wilmington geologist Paul Hearth in an effort aimed, Grossman writes, at learning whether future sea-level rise “will be merely very bad or absolutely catastrophic.”

With Hearty (“the Rock Whisperer,” as Raymo called him) and two other colleagues, Grossman and Raymo, now at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, set out for their 4,000-mile trans-Australia research road trip, Hearty diligently “reading” rocks along the way.

Engrossing … But Were Science Books Always This Much Fun?

What makes Grossman’s first-hand account so engrossing for science writers and science-writer-wannabes is … just that: It’s a first-hand account of one veteran journalist’s personal experiences on an extended research expedition. His message is one of caution: he warns of dramatic shrinking of Earth’s three great ice sheets “unless we Earthlings get on a low-carbon diet.” Through his eyes, readers get an informative and entertaining perspective of climate scientists doing — and loving — their field work, and Raymo’s strong commitment to effective science communications is key to Grossman’s documenting his climate concerns.

So it’s by any measure a rewarding and informative (and quick and easy) read. What makes it particularly enjoyable is not just the ease with which Grossman’s message is communicated, but the technology used in conveying it.

Was reading science books always such fun? Probably not. With the TED Books version — best viewed on an Apple iPad — one has numerous options to click-into or “drill down” for a series of more descriptive textual background, for profiles or map locations of terms highlighted, or for a photo or photo gallery, an explanatory video, or a timeline.

Click on the term “climbed steadily” in section 17 of 25 sections, for instance, and view a 39-second Grossman-narrated video on carbon dioxide concentrations over the past three-million years. “Hotter temperatures and higher sea levels are sure to follow,” Grossman says in the video, as current global temperatures approach those of the Pliocene.

Prefer to see a captioned slide show of the researchers’ travels across southern Australia? Click on the “View a slide show” icon later in that same section, and you’ll see it.

Like all of TED Books’ digital books, Deep Water sells for $2.99. The books “blend words with images, audio, video, social features, along with easily accessed outside links and documentation to provide a broader and deeper understanding of a topic,” Ted says, and Deep Water is no exception. TED says its display technology is based on the “Periodic Technology,” which it licenses from Atavist. “It allows editors to build multimedia narratives and layouts, then publish across multiple platforms,” TED says, noting that current formats work for Kindle, Nook, and iBooks (with an Android-based version in the works).

Whether it serves best to inspire science writers wanting a real taste of climate science field work or climatologists wanting to delve into more effective science communications, Grossman’s Deep Water is likely to prove a valuable teaching tool also for those wanting a deeper understanding of the sea-level rise and of how serious scientists come to study and understand it.

For those new to the whole idea of serious science e-books … Grossman’s is a great way to get your feet wet. And your imagination and curiosity both stoked and satisfied.

Editor’s Note: An initial glitch in the software application used by TED Books caused it to crash on older iPads when when a user clicks to see a ribbon of all pages across the top of the screen. TED Books by August 15 fixed the bug, and affected users need only do an app update through the App Store. (This note edited on 8/15/2012 to reflect fix of bug in earlier software.)

Daniel Grossman, Ph.D., is an award-winning freelance print journalist and radio and web producer with more than 20 years of experience. He earned his B.S. in physics and his Ph.D. in political science,...