Minutes that shook the world

February 6, 2004

After the paroxysmal eruption of Krakatoa in August 1883, the Royal Society appealed for evidence of its effects from witnesses worldwide, out of a growing Victorian sense of the world as globally interconnected.

A headmistress in Zanzibar wrote that "about the third week in July 1884, the boys... were much amused by finding on the beach stones which would float, evidently pumice-stone. The lady who was with them... also noticed that there were a quantity of human skulls and bones 'all along the beach at high water-mark'; these were quite clean and had no flesh remaining on them, and were found at intervals of a few yards, two or three lying close together."

These were some of the 36,000-odd victims of the eruption, whose skeletons had crossed 6,500km of Indian Ocean on "death-rafts of drifting pumice", in Simon Winchester's evocative phrase.

Though not the biggest eruption in history, Krakatoa's is probably the most famous, not excluding Vesuvius' in AD79. So loud was the detonation that it was heard nearly 5,000km away (the breadth of the US). The eruption, properly known as Krakatau ("Krakatoa" was likely an invention of a Times subeditor), has been subject to massive scientific study and publication, encouraged by the fiery birth of Anak Krakatoa ("child of Krakatoa") in 1930. But there has not been a general-interest book on the subject since 1965.

That was just before plate tectonics began to revolutionise geology. Today, we have a better, if far-from-complete idea of the causes of volcanic behaviour. In Krakatoa , Winchester brings the new knowledge into the picture and combines it with the history of the Dutch empire in the East Indies and the human and technological story of the eruption and its aftermath.

Parts of the book are well written, especially the final chapter on the return of life to the incinerated area and the epilogue describing a risky boat trip to Anak Krakatoa by the author. But Krakatoa would have benefited enormously from major reorganisation and ruthless pruning. It is ironic that the author thanks his editor fulsomely for the removal of "all the inconsistencies and structural flaws and infelicities that littered the submitted script". Much of the main text consists of irritating digressions and padding, tedious repetition and a wearisome drizzle of empty and arch language: an acute case of late Stephen J. Gould-itis.

For example, it is illogical and unhelpful to discuss the historical development of volcanology a couple of hundred pages after introducing plate tectonics. And there is no need for a long excursus on the electric telegraph or a 20-page chapter arguing vaguely that Krakatoa contributed to the eruption of Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia.

One might perhaps argue that the Great Kanto earthquake in Japan in 1923 - which destroyed two-thirds of Tokyo and four-fifths of Yokohama, and killed 140,000 people - helped to set Japan on the path of militarism; but most historians do not accept even that.

As for the scientific content, despite the author's degree in geology, the subject has been better popularised elsewhere. Winchester hardly mentions the vital evidence for seafloor spreading (and hence "continental drift") from Bruce Heezen's mapping of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the 1950s, and totally omits the crucial work of Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews in understanding the magnetic evidence for seafloor spreading.

It is seriously misleading to claim that plate tectonics answers "all questions about why volcanoes erupt". Though the theory works better for volcanoes than it does for earthquakes, there is so much of importance that is not yet understood, as is clear from the hand-waving explanations offered by Winchester for the eruption of Krakatoa itself.

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The THES , is the author of Earthshock and The Shape of the World .

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