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Customer Review

VINE VOICEon June 8, 2003
'Popular Science' has a slightly pejorative ring to it that is undeserved, as good examples serve to increase general awareness and dispel urban myths - this book is one of those good examples.
Written in Mr. Winchester's energetic, entertaining style, this book is well-researched and peppered with neat little snippets of information and pertinent anecdotes, backed up with solid evidence.
He goes into much historical detail about the East Indies and its importance in world trade and politics during the run-up to the cataclysmic explosion that devastated the island.
One quibble; in extolling the virtues of Batavia, he forgets that the place was reviled by seamen in the 18th C (Anson, Cook, Dampier, Davis et al) as a suffocating hell-hole of disease, stench and filth.
He examines the explosion of scientific theories that arose in the aftermath of the event, and the small part he played in proving that plate tectonics works (the chapter on The Wallace Line contains the most lucid crash course on plate tectonics I've seen).
Most of this has been said before, but the difference here is he attributes the area's political and religious changes directly to the explosion.
Some of this information seems extraneous to the main thrust of the book, (e,g, Wallace and Darwin), but it has a purpose ... It serves to underline the tremendous, slow forces that drive plate tectonics (unheard of then), and the devastating results of any blockage.
Given all this background data it should come as no surprise to learn that Krakatoa has exploded many times in the geologically recent past (60,000 years), and most assuredly will in the future.
Eruptions are an everyday occurence, but this gigantic 'throat-clearing' was the first global-scale event to be reported within minutes of it happening, and Mr. Winchester draws on many first-hand accounts to describe in horrendous detail the titanic scale of the event.
The explosion shook the world to its core, both physically and metaphorically; long-held beliefs of the solidity of the Earth and Man's significance were blown away. Religious and scientific establishments had to re-think their stances; but amazingly, some still clung (and cling now!) to the old immutable doctrines, even in the light of such solid evidence.
The sterile islands that formed in the wake of the explosion were a clean sheet for Nature, and observations of new life colonising them became the new focus of scientific study, in a less human-controlled way than E.O. Wilson did in the Florida Keys.
As with most of Mr. Winchester's books, this is a very instructive and entertaining read, thoughtfully & thankfully containing an appendix on further reading, which I recommend to any popular science/history fan. *****
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