Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Krakatoa : The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 - Simon Winchester

My younger brother is a professional astronomer. Several years ago, on a research trip to Hawaii, he unfortunately had his observation time on Mauna Kea cut short by a telescope malfunction (Note: Only an astronomer would call two days off work in Hawaii an unfortunate occurence). This breakdown left him with two days to roam about the Big Island in daylight, something that astronomers, with their vampiric lifestyle, rarely get the opportunity to do. He headed off to Volcanoes National Park and upon his return, described to me in exceptional vivid detail what it was like to hike on ground that was too hot to stand still on for lengthy periods of time...

Such is the hidden geothermal power of the earth. Melted sneakers are the least of your worries...

Krakatoa: The Day the Earth Exploded is a fascinating, complex journey into the heart of one of the most infamous volcanic eruptions of all time, and, thanks to the advent of the undersea telegraph cable, the first truly "modern" disaster of history. Krakatoa exploded on August 27, 1883, claiming more than 40,000 lives and the shock wave traveled the globe a total of seven times, being measured clearly in England in both tidal records and barometer measurements.

Winchester does an excellent job outlining the background of the disaster, including both the geologic significance of Krakatoa's location, the significance of Alfred Russell Wallace's evolutionary "Wallace Line", the background of plate tectonics and continental drift, with the history of vulcanism and the Dutch colonial empire of the East. He knows his geology and is gifted with an excellent ability to explain the details in clear and refreshingly non-technical prose. At the end of the day you have a clear view of the significance of the disaster, the horrifying eyewitness accounts of huge and cataclysmic explosion (heard more than 3600 km away), the 100-foot tsunamis that devastated the coastal regions, the long-term impact the eruption had on the burgeoning Dutch empire, and the glorious sunsets that Krakatoa's globe-encircling dust and ash gifted the world.

Winchester does a good job demosntrating the unimaginable scale and horror of the event. One particularly chilling passage recounts ships sighting literal rafts of pumice clogging the seas, floating across the Indian Ocean, complete with hundreds of skeletal human remains and household debris strewn across their surfaces.

The book falls short unfortunately in two key areas. First, though the disaster is well-described and documented, it also left me strangely unmoved and untouched. I found it difficult, if not impossible, to find myself involved or interested in any of the key figures of the age, partially because Winchester generally doesn't focus in on specific individuals or themes for lengthy periods of time and possibly because the geology lessons do tend to interrupt the flow of the narrative at times. Second, Winchester's attempt to link the eventual fall of the Dutch from power in Java and Indonesia with the devastation following the volcanic eruption seems...well, to be a bit of a reach. He notes the rise in radical Islamic activities in the years following Krakatoa and makes a basic case for cause-and-effect, it does not seem to be a particularly strong one and I for one, remain fairly unconvinced.

Overall, a strong and fascinating read.

For a look at Krakatoa today, check out these pictures, these ones and this site.

For more on volcanoes, check out Volcano World at the University of North Dakota, learn how they work here, and check out Pompeii, destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius here.

Learn more about plate tectonics here (courtesy of the US Geological Survey) and Alfred Russell Wallace (and his famous Wallace Line) here.

Learn how to make a Golden Volcano here...believe me, you will regret it. I did.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Prey - Michael Crichton

After reading ten of Michael Crichton's books over the years, I've come to the reluctant conclusion that his reach exceeds his grasp.

Prey is no exception.

Set in the new scientific frontier of nano-technology, Crichton cautionary tale mixes his usual blend of amoral scientests, venture capital and new technology run amuck to craft a marginally interesting story set (mostly) in a Mojave research lab. The scientests have combined artificial intelligence, nano-technology and emergent behavior to create a new type of life form - a swarm of miniscule, molecule-sized machines that rapidly evolve their own purpose and direction, potentially threatening not only the scientests (and the intrepid "good guy" who must work with them to shut it down) within the lab, but the future of life on Earth.

The problem with the book doesn't come from the ideas - Crichton is great with ideas - and not from the science - again, an area that Crichton manages to pull together reasonably well (albeit somewhat dull to read for page after page) - but from the simple fact that his books almost all tend to be shallow, relatively characterless and, quite bluntly, not that original in their take on the ideas and concepts he spins out. Indeed several of his books (most notably Jurassic Park, Timeline, Rising Sun...Congo,... well okay, almost all of them...) seem to more concept treatments then real novels, written as Hollywood screenplay pitches rather then as fully evolved stories. When I think about what the ideas he has developed could be in the hands of a pure science fiction writer, I get chills, I get excited....but not over what Crichton has written.

Prey is particularly disapointing in this vein. The characters are mostly lacking any clear motivation or distinguishing features (beyond such attributes as race, gender, age or general appearance), the dialogue is light (and mostly clunky) and the plot situation is such that I found myself predicting (with a fair amount of exactitude) the ending. In truth, I didn't really care by the time the book ended what happened to the characters. It wasn't so bad that I was cheering on the vicious and destructive nano-particles (well, okay...maybe I was...a little...) but it certainly wasn't good...

For a better (and far more fascinating) read on nano-technology set far in the future, check out Walter Jon Williams' book Aristoi.

Read physicist Richard Feynman's 1959 talk that kick-started the nanotechnology concept here and some additional background info on nanotechnology here and here.

Here's an article on the potential dangers of nanotechnology that makes Crichton's book look like a gentle walk in the park....be afraid, be very afraid.

Here's another Crichton for you....