[UCP Books]: Floating Gold: A Natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergris

“In this wonderful—and surprisingly gripping—book, Christopher Kemp examines the curious history of one of the world’s rarest and most magical substances. This is natural history done well.”
Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein
 “A compelling narrative, a detective story, and a wonderful window into history and obsession, Floating Gold has struck a rich oceanic seam.” 
 Philip Hoare, author of The Whale
Floating Gold
A Natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergris

by Christopher Kemp


Publication Date: May 22, 2012 Cloth $22.50 • £14.50 
UK Publication Date: June 12, 2012 978-0-226-43036-2

If the book you now hold in your hands were made of ambergris, it would be worth over a thousand dollars (but it would also now be filling your office with an aroma similar to Limburger cheese). Despite being one of the world’s most expensive substances, ambergris is also one of the world’s least known. This preternaturally hardened whale dung is in fact the key ingredient in high-end perfume: it is what makes the sophisticated scent linger on glamorous skin. As Christopher Kemp reveals in this alluring and unusual book, ambergis’s history and its contemporary seekers are as unexpected and fascinating as its uses—from scenting cigarettes in Egypt to warding off the plague.
A rare secretion produced only by sperm whales, which have a fondness for squid but an inability to digest their beaks, ambergris is expelled at sea and floats on ocean currents for years, slowly transforming, before it sometimes washes ashore looking like a nondescript waxy pebble. It can appear almost anywhere but is found so rarely, it might as well appear nowhere. Kemp’s journey follows this elusive substance from the wild, rocky New Zealand coastline to Stewart Island, and to Boston, Cape Cod, and back again. Along the way, he tracks down the secretive collectors and traders who populate the clandestine modern-day ambergris trade. Kemp’s obsessive curiosity is infectious, and this evocative, science-inspired travelogue, chock-full of eccentric personalities, will have you eyeing the shore on your next vacation with the hope of finding your own piece of the jackpot—or at least considering that bottle of designer perfume a little differently.
Christopher Kemp is a molecular biologist who currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife and two sons. He has worked as a columnist for Cincinnati City Beat, and his science writing has appeared on Salon.
He is available for interviews. Please contact Carrie Olivia Adams at 773-702-4216 or cadams@press.uchicago.edu for more information.


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