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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling, but...., 24 Jun. 2011
This review is from: Eruptions that Shook the World (Hardcover)
Volcanic eruptions shook the world, or at least a region or town. What was the effect on the environment, climate, and society? To provide answers to such questions the author first introdudes the reader to volcanoes, their eruption styles as well as local and global hazards (climate change). Having then gone through the techniques needed to measure the effects of eruptions, case studies are presented: from Toba, to Santorini, to Laki. Conclusions follow: what is to be done?

In the beginning the book feels like a palimpsest - an uneven mix of lecture transcripts as well as travel and reading notes. At times ponderous and plodding (as befits something to be read by obdurate students over weeks and months), the text can also be light, entertaining and full of insights. One could readily dispense with most of the formulas, or the various methods for estimating eruption magnitudes - I'll trust the specialist with the numbers, for only the outcome counts.

Case studies soon take over. The first is also the most interesting dish: it deals with mantel plumes and their mega-eruptions of the past: Dekkan traps etc. The inner workings of the mantle and core would appear to have punctuated the evolution of life on earth across the eons. Of course, it is all very conjectural, but that's the spice of research. The idea that dinosaurs may have not been zapped by a meteorite alone, though, is worth savouring, after all that has been written about it. For me the link between human origins and volcanism, in one of the next chapters, is exciting. The broad outline - the observation that the Rift might have been an "ideal" place for evolution, makes sense. This insight remains tantalizing, though, because the story is incomplete: issues like early migrations out of Africa (Java and Beijing man), or the role of intertidal zones in the shaping the physiology of the human body cannot be resolved in this limited framework. Chapter 10 on Mesoamerica is delightful for its elegant marshaling of the facts. Toba is cleverly debunked. The role of volcanism in cultural evolution (Europe) is insightful and forceful. On Justinian David Keys Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World might have been referred to: he rightly establishes a link to Mesoamerica.

The final chapter, on "risk control", reflects the Zeitgeist, and is disappointing. Some of the conclusions remind me of the wise words of the French philosopher M. de La Palisse ("if you don't want to get wet, stay out of the rain"). Otherwise grand eruptions are met with grandiose all-encompassing schemes with never-ending lists of priorities and coordination needs, plus international bodies, and what else.

This penchant for "counsel of perfection" is doubled by naïveté. The author mentions the Naples "preparedness plan" - Naples is a city who can't even seem to tackle its garbage removal system. And Italy's preparedness to tackle large risks was tested in 2009 in L'Aquila's earthquake, and found grossly wanting. Reconstruction got mired in corruption and wrangling for political advantage.

As for geo-engineering... well: we have great successes with "scientific" solutions, like cane toads in Australia, right? Why can't we admit that for all the great leaps forward in science our knowledge of the ecological context is woefully limited - and shut up for the duration? Take the example of seeding the oceans with Fe - to increase bacterial photosynthesis. Well, we did not know, until a few years back, that bacteriophages were great actors in this play See Carl ZIMMER A Planet of Viruses, did we? Who else is there, unobserved?

This reference book will stay close at hand in my library - my fervent hope is that rapid accumulation of new evidence will force the author to make fundamental revisions soon. He is assured a repeat client - but please, sort out the beginnings.

On a personal note, this book reminds me of a glorious scene in The Pink Panther movie by Blake Edwards. At midnight in the village, a bevy of cars in succession enter and exit the main square, honking wildly as they careen around a fountain. Each of them catches our attention for a shrieking moment: one recognizes this or the other actor at the wheel, as she pursues his own story into the surrounding darkness. Soon the cars reappear and all ending up in a huge smoking pile. Such is history - even volcanic history - made of many case histories, illuminated for a moment by the light of science. An old man, wanting to cross, stands perplexed, and then sits down to contemplate the final wreckage, bemused.
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