Monday, September 10, 2012

Eruptions That Shook the World

I love science. This is probably not new to any of you who know me. When I was a kid I wanted to be a physicist before I could even pronounce the word. I loved A Wrinkle in Time because I saw how the mom was a scientist and a mom. That was the kind of life I wanted.

In college I tried to be practical and ambitious at the same time. I had a physics/English double major. This went well until I came home from my mission. Two years without math makes it very hard to pick up just when the physics gets really scary. So I gave up the major, contented myself with math & physics minors and moved on. At least I came back still knowing English.

Not only did this decision leave me with lingering regrets over my mathematical ability, it left me with a thirst to understand more about everything. I love science books, especially those written with a bit of humor and lots of information I've never seen.  Many general science books are dumbed down so much it is painful and/or boring to read them. This one was neither.

Judging from the equations and detailed charts, it probably doesn't count as a general science book anyway. It was fascinating. It described why the solid mantle melts to form magma; the different types of magma and why it matters; the method used to estimate the size of eruptions and why volume works best. All things that are glossed over in most easy descriptions of volcanoes.

I couldn't get over the amount of estimation used in this science though. In one place the term "orders of magnitude" was used to describe the uncertainty of the size of an explosion. That is the difference between 10 and 100 and 1000. That by itself wouldn't be so horrible, I've seen that before in emerging sciences. What amazed me was that computer models were being made with that kind of information. The computer models have definite answers, so when you use them it sounds like you really know what will happen in any given event. But when the data going into the making of the model could by off by that amount, your model is less likely to reflect the real world.

So often the author admits to a lack of knowledge. This is a good thing. Though I thought the modelling was weird I love the honesty of a professor who confesses that the models can't figure out why a certain thing happened or that they can't find the volcano that caused certain effects. It shows that science is still progressing and there is still so much to learn. While I was reading the uncertainty annoyed me, in retrospect I love knowing that there is still so much to learn. How exciting it must be to work in a field where every day new information is coming in, new hypothesis being tested. It must almost be as exciting as the field I finally chose for myself: motherhood.

Eruptions That Shook the World. Clive Oppenheimer. Oxford Press. 2012