A United States Geological Survey scientist returns with a rich account of one of his predecessors: Thomas Jaggar (1871-1953), a somewhat forgotten pioneer in volcanology.
Dvorak (Earthquake Storms: The Fascinating History and Volatile Future of the San Andreas Fault, 2015), who now operates the telescope at Mauna Kea in Hawaii, a site where Jaggar spent some enormously productive years, brings not just a sharp understanding of the scientific issues involved, but also a humanist’s heart. We see him as a flawed human being but a ferociously dedicated researcher, a fearless adventurer (who ran toward eruptions), and a visionary. The author begins with Jaggar’s Cincinnati boyhood in the home of an important local clergyman, then commences his swift, engaging accounts of Jaggar’s numerous visits to remote (and dangerous) sites, travels that make the word peripatetic seem insufficient. Alaska, Japan, the Caribbean, Hawaii—these are a few of the places he traveled to understand what fascinated him the most: the power in the Earth. Dvorak pauses occasionally to chronicle Jaggar’s personal life (which became somewhat scandalous), but these stories, though important, are not his focus. He seeks to teach readers about volcanology—and does so in terms that laypeople can comprehend—and he makes us feel the excitement, the fear, and the intense heat of a lava flow. We get some Hawaiian history, as well, with an especially interesting section about the origin of the goddess Pele and how many Hawaiians were quick to credit or blame her for the vagaries of the volcanoes. Occasionally, Dvorak steps into the story to add some information about one of his own related experiences, no more affectingly so than when he visited the Japanese relatives of one of Jaggar’s Hawaiian assistants, a family rounded up during the World War II internment-camp period.
First-rate reporting and erudition underlie this successful effort to re-establish the reputation of an indispensable scientist.