Thursday, December 23, 2010

Recommended Holiday Reading

A passage from Simon Winchester's Krakatoa, The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 - early autumn morning in 1964, I was sitting in my room in the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge.. when Toronto's Tuzo Wilson, on sabbatical leave, sauntered in clearly bursting to tell anyone who would listen about his new ideas. He had discovered that I was the new lecturer in structural geology and said: "Dewey, I have discovered a new class of fault." "Rubbish," I said, " we know about the geology and kinematics of every kind of fault known to mankind." Tuzo grinned, and produced  a simple colored folded paper version of his now famous ridge/transform/ridge model, and proceeded to open and close, open and close it with that wonderful smile on his face. I was transfixed both by the realization that I was seeing something profoundly new and important, and by the fact that I was talking to a very clever and original man.

Moments like these always enliven a science book and in Krakatoa there is a very satisfying section on the decades long accumulation of observations of gravity anomalies, remnant magnetism, volcanic island chains and faults and ideas on the earth's interior that culminated in the theory of plate tectonics. Tuzo Wilson's discovery that the sense of movement along faults that cut across mid-oceanic ridges is opposite to the then known transcurrent or strike slip faults on land was one such key moment. He had realized that such faults would form if  the ocean floor was somehow opening and pushing the split crust in opposite directions. Later observations vindicated his ideas.

Geology is not the only theme of this book. There is much to read about  colonial expansion and clashes of the Portuguese and the Dutch both between themselves and with the local Indonesian people. Geology, climate change, trade, cultural and religious evolution before and after the eruption are the narrative threads that Simon Winchester expertly weaves together.

I'm just one third through this book. Its great holiday reading.

I won't be posting now until early next year.. unless off course Anak Krakatoa.. the child of Krakatoa.. the new volcano that is growing at the rate of about 20 feet per year blows up..

Happy Holidays!


  1. Happy Hollydaze to you, too! And thank you for this post - I've passed over Krakatoa for years thinking it's just a book about the volcano, and there was always something else that looked more interesting. I'll know better now!