Saturday, June 25, 2011

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded by Simon Winchester

Krakatoa is, of course, a volcano south of Sumatra and west of Java that violently exploded in 1883.

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded is a book by Simon Winchester which offers us the following parallel stories, which go far beyond the scope of Krakatoa's mere Wikipedia article:

- The establishment and rise of the Dutch empire in Southeast Asia, and a description of the Dutch East Indies capital of Batavia (now Jakarta) in the late nineteenth century, on the eve of the eruption;

- The story of European science concerning the Indonesian archipelago, including a great deal on Alfred Russel Wallace, of Wallace Line fame;

- An overview of the science of plate tectonics as it relates to the eruption;

- A history of the science of plate tectonics, from its beginnings in the 1920s when it was espoused primarily by one tireless scientist (Alfred Lothar Wegener) to the 1960s, when it finally won wide acceptance due to overwhelming evidence;

- A brief run-down of events in the Dutch East Indies after the eruption, which included increasing violent rebellion by locals against Dutch rule, and how they may have been helped along substantially by Krakatoa;

- And a history of global telecommunications, as it developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Krakatoa was the first major calamity to be reported worldwide in real time; in addition, the eruption caused disturbances in air pressure that were recorded on scientific instruments throughout the world. This may have contributed to a nascent sense in Westerners' minds that the world was one interconnected village.

This was my fourth Simon Winchester book, and by far the most impressive. Of my previous Winchester books, The Map That Changed the World is an excellent biography and a decent history of 19th-century geology. Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles, on the other hand, is almost embarrassingly first-person. The Professor and the Madman is very well-done. It's not a lesser book than Krakatoa; it's only less awesomely ambitious.

Winchester is one of those pop nonfiction writers, like Malcolm Gladwell, who is well-known and idiosyncratic enough to be easily mocked or spoofed. But a few months ago in Slate, Nathan Heller wrote a pretty fair analysis of why Winchester is so popular. He didn't mention Krakatoa, but his thoughts apply to this book as well.

Here's a final thought: as I mentioned, Krakatoa was the first major natural disaster which got reported around the world in real time. There hasn't been a comparable volcanic eruption since 1883, but utterly massive eruptions probably happen more often than we think. There's pretty good circumstantial evidence (which Winchester delves into) that Krakatoa erupted even more violently in 535. More recently, elsewhere in Indonesia, in 1815, Mt. Tambora erupted and dumped so much ash into the atmosphere that crops failed in Europe and North America and people starved. We human beings are terrible at putting things in historical context. If another titanic eruption happens within the next few years, a disaster on the scale of the Boxing Day tsunami or the Tohoku earthquake but with global effects, how is our news media going to flail about trying to explain it? How are politicians going to react? How are we going to react?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Human time scale is so small compared to the the slow motions of geology. Even recorded civilization is but a small sliver of total human existence. Even so, it can be abused, such as the claims of "5000 years of continuous Chinese history" as those from mainland propagandaists like to espouse to command some feeling of unity; however, I'd bet that someone living in "China" (as it has often been a series of disparate kingdoms, as I'm sure you know) today has far less in common with their ancient ancestors than do with a fellow paen of globalisation trying to make a buck.

Even so, I wonder sometimes what the world would be like if we somehow had access or collective memory to say, the last 20,000 years of human history, beyond the abstractions of carbon dating and cave-finding..

Have you read Collapse ,by Jared Diamond? Highly recommended!