Jack-of-all-scientific-trades Pellegrino (Ghosts of the Titanic, 2000, etc.) takes a wide-ranging look at awesome phenomena associated with Earth’s volcanic past and possible future.
The Earth has a life of its own, he reminds us, humbling the reader with a record of major volcanic events powerful enough to obliterate discrete civilizations and entire species, even to redirect evolution itself. And it ain’t over ’til it’s over, Pellegrino asserts. His charting of key incidents shows Mount St. Helens releasing in 1980 energy equivalent to a ten-megaton nuclear blast, but that’s nothing compared to his “standard unit” of an estimated 24,000 megatons, based on the 1628 b.c. explosion of the Island of Thera, a possible Atlantis in the Mediterranean. Records of ancient cultures from China to Byzantium chronicle the “years without summer,” including mini–ice ages, which is often what resulted. The richness of preserved artifacts from the a.d. 79 destruction of the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum by Mount Vesuvius affords the author a romp through the eruption’s grisly but poignant aftermath, dwelling on the “carbonized tongues” and “exploded teeth” of presumed victims. Less colorful but possibly more interesting are Pellegrino’s summaries of the amazing depth of detail gleaned from the fossil record in relevant locales, effectively rendered via the format of a trip back in time. The author’s vaulting digressions, however, are sometimes merely frustrating: introducing the notion of an infinitely “oscillating” series of identical universes, for example, he doesn’t really explain why Red Sox fans would have to watch that ball go through Bill Buckner’s legs time and again every 20 billion years or so. And a discussion of the mechanics of the World Trade Towers’ collapse in volcanologist’s terms has the ring of afterthought.
Nonetheless, an engrossing, challenging read.