Archive for the ‘Geology’ Category

journey-to-the-centre-of-the-earth-by-david-whitehouseJourney to the Centre of the Earth: A Scientific Exploration into the Heart of Our Planet, David Whitehouse (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2015)

Can you touch anywhere on your body with your right hand? Replying quickly, you might say you can. But what about your right elbow? You can’t touch that with your right hand. Science is like that, because distant things are often easier to study and understand than close things. We have a good understanding of how stars work, for example, but not of how the earth’s magnetic field is generated.

And while we’ve been able to predict solar eclipses for millennia, we still can’t predict earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Understanding the deep earth is difficult, so there are a lot of mysteries and conjectures in this well-written and compelling book about the interior of our home planet. Scientists have landed probes on Mars, millions of kilometres away, but the “deepest hole ever drilled on earth – the Kola Superdeep borehole in northern Russia” reached only 12,262 metres. That’s a mere pinprick by comparison with the radius of the earth. To get beyond that, scientists have had to study the shockwaves generated by earthquakes. The medium is the message: as the waves pass through or hit different regions and materials, they behave in different ways.

For example, when the Croatian scientist Andrija Mohorovičić (1857-1936) “studied the records from several seismometers” after an earthquake near Zagreb, “he realised that some of the shockwaves […] were being reflected back to the surface from a boundary region between the crust and mantle.” (pg. 82 of the 2016 paperback) The region is now called the Mohorovičić discontinuity. But that discovery was made before the First World War and deep geology hasn’t advanced very much in the intervening century. This book borrows the title of a Jules Verne novel published in 1864. If Verne came back to life, he would be pleased to see that his work is still popular, but he would be disappointed to see that the human race was no nearer reaching the centre of the earth.

Or would he? The American geologist Don Anderson says: “Almost everything known or inferred about the inner core from seismology or indirect inference is controversial.” (pg. 211) Deep geology is a difficult science, but that’s part of what makes it so interesting. Something else that makes it interesting is that the inner earth can visit catastrophes on the outer earth and the film of the life that clings there:

The big question is: can we see mass extinction events on the way up? Some scientists believe that we can by looking for the plumes [i.e., giant plumes of rising magma]. Such a thing is seen in the south-west Pacific near the Fiji Tonga subduction zone. It’s 700 km deep, has a structure consistent with a massive temperature anomaly and may be rising. It could render the earth uninhabitable for humans and it will reach the surface in an estimated 200 million years. (ch. 17, “Plumes”, pg. 146)

Asteroid impact and gamma-ray bursts are not the only catastrophes that threaten the continued existence of the human race. They may not even be the most likely. The film of life on the surface of the earth is fragile and one day it won’t be there any more.

But there’s also life deep inside the earth, living in conditions of extreme pressure, heat and darkness. We still know little about this “deep biosphere” and it may hold some big surprises. The rest of the deep earth almost certainly does. And the deep earth is just the beginning: as Whitehouse describes in chapter 26, there are “Other Worlds, Other Journeys” to come, including the even more extreme conditions at the heart of Jupiter, where the temperature is a “staggering 37,000 degrees C” and the pressure is “over ten times that found at the centre of the Earth.” (pg. 239)

Or so scientists estimate. Will scanners be invented to prove their theories? Will probes ever get there and find out for real? We can hope so. In the meantime, this book is an excellent introduction to the ideas, the pioneers and the modern researchers into mysteries that are right beneath our doorsteps. Whether it’s discussing diamonds, demons or “Double-D-Prime”, Journey to the Centre of the Earth is popular science that’s interesting, entertaining and informative all at once.

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Blind Descent by James M. TaborBlind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth, James M. Tabor (Random House 2010)

When men climb mountains, they confront their own minds. There are psychological barriers to conquer as much as physical ones: fear, uncertainty, mental fatigue. But all those barriers, psychological and physical, are bigger in caving – and particularly in the caving described in this book. It’s about the quest to explore super-caves, the deepest and most dangerous places on earth.

As a result, they’re also the most challenging. Climbing a mountain doesn’t cut you off from the sun, stars and sky or from easy communication with the rest of the world. Super-caving does and that isolation alone is difficult to endure as days underground stretch into weeks and months. It isn’t alone, of course: there are also wet, cold, dirt and constant danger down there. Sometimes deafening noise too, as underground rivers pour over waterfalls or churn through huge tunnels. But super-caving won’t make you famous: it isn’t as photogenic as mountaineering and the two great cavers discussed here, the Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk and the American Bill Stone, aren’t household names.

Perhaps they never wanted to be. Mountaineers move towards the sun, higher and higher into the light. Cavers move away from the sun, deeper and deeper into the dark. It would be interesting to compare the psychology of the two groups. Some people belong to both, of course, and Tabor points out that exploring a super-cave is like climbing Everest in reverse. Except that Everest doesn’t drown people. Super-caves do, because to explore them cavers often have to don scuba-gear and swim through flooded tunnels and highly dangerous sumps. In that setting, mistakes and accidents that mean little in open water often become deadly. Like motorcyclists and heroin-addicts, cave-divers will tend to know a lot of people who died young.

And fear of dying can cause it: it’s easy to panic when the risks are so high and the pressures so great. Cave-diving is one of the biggest psychological challenges that a human being can face. Alexander Klimchouk and Bill Stone beat the odds, but only one of them could win the race Tabor describes here: reaching the lowest point on earth. Stone sought it in Mexico, Klimchouk in the Republic of Georgia. According to Tabor, Klimchouk won the race, but I’m not sure how anyone can be sure of that. The highest point on earth is easy to identify, but how can anyone be sure where the lowest point is?

Geoscopes may eventually answer that question, but by the time we can peer deep into the earth using instruments, the depth-record set by Klimchouk’s expedition – 6,825 feet deep in Krubera Super-Cave – may have been far surpassed by a subterrene, or earth-invading equivalent of a submarine. If that happens, earth-explorers will face a new problem: not cold, but heat. Rocks are still solid at 6,825 feet and we still know very little about molten depths of the earth. That’s why earthquakes are still impossible to predict. Klimchouk and Stone haven’t made great advances in geology, but they wanted to be seen as scientist-explorers, not as explorer-adventurers.

They found adventure all the same and Tabor points out that they stand in the tradition of men like Roald Amundsen, Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong. That tradition is coming to an end: up till now, technology has assisted minds and muscles. In future, it will re-shape them. Humans will turn into superhumans. And perhaps that will mean the end of exploration and adventure. Blind Descent may be a record of one of the last great triumphs of the old human race. If so, it’s an appropriate record: intelligent, well-written and vivid. There are some breathlessness and journalistic licence too, but Blind Descent is a good book about great feats.

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Volcano Discoveries by Tom Pfeiffer and Ingrid SmetVolcano Discoveries: A Photographic Journey around the World, Tom Pfeiffer and Ingrid Smet (New Holland 2015)

Volcano Discoveries is a dull title for a dazzling book. I would have called it Gods of Fire instead. Mountains are naturally awe-inspiring, but ordinary ones are like slumbering or watchful gods. Volcanoes are mountain-gods that come to life, spewing fire, breathing smoke, devastating the landscape and sometimes wiping out cities. And volcanoes have been worshipped, as this book describes:

For the Mayans, in an interesting parallel to the ancient Egyptians, the pyramid was a very special shape and a holy place that connected the world with the gods. In the mountainous regions of western Guatemala, the Mayans interpreted volcanoes as natural pyramids and, unless in eruption, climbing to their summits was their way to worship them. (“Guatemala: Volcanoes of the Mayans”, pg. 153)

In Italy, the fire-god Vulcanus gave his name first to one fire-mountain, in the Aeloian archipelago, then to all of them (“Vulcano”, pg. 50). In Hawaii, Pele is the volcano-goddess, appearing either as “a tall beautiful young girl or a bent, ugly old woman” (“Hawaii”, pg. 122). Gods, goddesses and demons are everywhere in the stories told about volcanoes. That’s why Gods of Fire would have been a much better title.

But the German volcanologist Tom Pfeiffer is presumably plugging his company VolcanoDiscovery. He supplies the photographs; the Belgian geologist Ingrid Smet supplies the text. His images and her words work well together, but there’s a collaboration in the images too, like the two aspects of Pele. Some of the images are fiery and full of action, as blazing lava fountains against starry skies or pours in blood-red rivers down a slope. Others are bleak: lifeless cones, grey ash-fields, black pavements of cooled lava.

The two kinds of image contrast very effectively, as the book tours every volcanic region of the world from Iceland to Indonesia. And while some images are spectacular, some are small. The huge snow-covered cone of Shishaldin, “in the Aleutian chain”, is spectacular (pg. 141), like the vast plume of smoke belching from Fuego de Colima in Mexico (pg. 149) and the churning lava lake of Marum in the Pacific (pg. 175). Small images include ferns growing in cooled lava (pg. 139); yellow crystals of sulphur around the mouth of a “fumarolic vent” (pg. 74); and a close-up of “Pele’s hair”, or “elongated lava strings that quickly cooled down and became glass” (pg. 126).

So there’s every scale, every stage of volcanic activity, and every kind of slope, steam-plume and smoke-cloud, plus lots of facts, figures and interesting asides in the texts. If you’re interested in volcanoes, the gods of fire are waiting here. If you can raise a glass of tequila to them, even better: “whereas volcanic soils are being used throughout the world to grow grapes for wine production, in Mexico they are used for cultivation of the blue agave – the plant from which tequila is distilled” (“Mexico”, pg. 143).

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Rocks and Minerals by Ronald Louis BonewitzRocks and Minerals, Ronald Louis Bonewitz (Dorling Kindersley 2012)

When you read a book, you read your own brain. Somehow the chemicals inside your skull turn electrical signals into conscious experience. Colour is one of the most powerful examples: the difference between the red of cinnabar, the yellow of orpiment and the blue of hemimorphite is ultimately a difference in the firing-rate and strength of nerve-signals. But that’s true of the differences between sight and smell, smell and hearing, hearing and touch, and so on. The nerve-signals are essentially the same: it’s the encoding that changes, but the encoding is quantitative, not qualitative. So how do quanta turn into qualia?

This book brings these questions home very strongly, because its images are so powerful. Minerals can be beautiful or ugly, crystalline or formless, dazzling or dull. Yet all those differences, so sharp in the mind, arise from differing arrangements of the same set of subatomic particles. Smooth blue turquoise has the chemical formula CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8•4H2O; the orange-red crystals of vanadinite have the formula Pb5(VO4)3Cl. Those very different formulas involve different elements, so it’s not surprising that turquoise and vandanite have very different appearances and chemical behaviour.

But all elements are built of three things: protons, neutrons and electrons. On every page of this book you’re just seeing variations on a threme – a theme of three. But “just” isn’t right for the vastness of what’s going on. The differences between minerals are numerical: the three particles are arranged differently and come in different quantities. Of course, there are sub-atomic forces involved too and smaller units at work in the three particles, but the fundaments of matter are far simpler than the shapes, colours and textures that can be produced by mixing those fundaments in varying proportions.

As you’ll see here: variety is the spice of this book. The geologist Ronald Louis Bonewitz discusses basic chemistry, crystallography and collecting techniques, then works his way systematically through the many families of mineral: native elements, sulphides, molybdates, arsenates, and so on, plus organics like coral and amber. Then there’s a shorter section on rocks: igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary, plus meteorites. Each distinct mineral and rock has an individual page with a colour photograph, a formula, a key of its identification features, and a short text discussing its name, chemistry and uses:

Scorodite FeAsO4•2H2O3

A hydrated iron arsenate mineral, scorodite takes its name from the Greek word scorodion, which means “garlic-like” – an allusion to the odour emitted by the arsenic when specimens are heated. Scorodite can vary considerably in colour depending on the light under which it is seen: pale leek green, greyish green, liver brown, pale blue, violet, yellow, pale greyish, or colourless. It may be blue-green in daylight but bluish purple to greyish blue in incandescent light; in transmitted light it may appear colourless to pale shades of green or brown. Crystals are usually dipyramidal, appearing octohedral, and may have a number of modifying faces. They may also be tabular or short prisms. Drusy coatings are common. Scorodite may also be porous and earthy or massive. Scorodite is found in hydrothermal veins, hot spring deposits, and oxidized zones of arsenic-rich ore bodies. Associated minerals may be pharmacosiderite, vivianite (p. 157), adamite (p. 160), and various iron oxides. (“Minerals: Arsenates”, pg. 165)

There’s a lot here to delight the eye, stimulate the mind and twist the tongue, but chemistry always makes me think of consciousness. It’s a fundamental science and it’s been spectacularly successful in both explaining and altering the material world. This book is a triumph of chemistry both as an object and as an exposition.

But chemistry isn’t all-conquering: it’s helpless to explain the mental aspect of the world. My brain is made of the same basic particles as both this book I’m reading and the minerals it’s describing and depicting. But I’m conscious and they’re not. Science has absolutely no idea how to cross the chasm between matter and mind.

This book wasn’t intended to raise that question, but it does for me. And the better it succeeds in its obvious purpose – portraying, describing and explaining matter – the more strongly it knocks on that stubbornly closed metaphysical door.

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The Million Death Quake by Roger MussonThe Million Death Quake: The Science of Predicting Earth’s Deadliest Natural Disaster, Roger Musson (Palgrave Macmillan 2012)

“As solid as the earth,” we say. That’s why even mild earthquakes are often frightening and always memorable. Suddenly you can’t rely on the earth any more: it’s not rock-steady, it’s dancing. And it might be about to dance you to death.

But Robert Musson, author of this excellent guide to the history and future of seismology, points out that even in a big earthquake you’ll usually be safe in the open away from buildings. The problem is that few people spend much time like that. Cities are getting bigger and more crowded, which is why he suggests that one day an earthquake could kill a million people or more. Tehran is one candidate. So is this:

The case of Istanbul is unnerving for another reason. The North Anatolian Fault, the great strike-slip fault that starts in eastern Turkey and dies out in the middle of the Aegean, has an interesting property. Earthquakes along it tend to occur in sequences, starting in the east and moving progressively west. Each quake, as it occurs, throws more stress on the next section of fault to the west, which then fails a few years to a decade or so later. it’s like a series of dominoes toppling. […] The current sequence began with a 7.8 magnitude event near Erzincan, at the eastern end of the fault line, in 1939. This was followed by quakes progressively further west in 1942, 1943, 1944, 1957 and 1967. Then, after a lull, the next most westerly stretch of fault broke in 1999 with the Izmit earthquake. The next stretch of fault to the west goes straight through the Sea of Marmara, just south of Istanbul. This is the next domino to fall, and it could happen at any time. (ch. 12, “Stay Safe”, pp. 233-4)

Or there could be another lull. That is one of the interesting things about earthquakes: their unpredictability. The subtitle of this book is misleading, because there is no reliable science of prediction for earthquakes. Seismologists can say in great detail why and how they occur, but they can’t say where or when or what size. We are far better at predicting the behaviour of the sky above our heads than we are at predicting the behaviour of the earth beneath our feet. Meteorologists are refining and extending their forecasts further all the time. Astronomers have been accurately predicting eclipses and planetary orbits for thousands of years.

Seismologists would like to make their discipline predictive rather than reactive, but it’s proving very difficult. Masson discusses one team of Greek seismologists who claimed to be able to predict quakes using “seismic electrical signals, or SES for short” released by “rocks once they are stressed beyond a certain degree” (ch. 8, “Next Year’s Earthquakes”, pg. 172). But the team, led by Professor Panayotis Varotsos, made their predictions by sending telegrams to each other rather than informing an official body. When the earthquake occurred, they would produce the telegram and its date-stamp: “The question that was whispered in the corridors at conference sessions was this: How many telegrams were quietly burned when the prediction failed?”

Then a “moderate earthquake” hit Athens in 1999 and although the team claimed to have predicted it, they hadn’t said so in public. Apparently stung by the criticism that followed, Professor Varotsos issued a public prediction of a larger earthquake on its way in central Greece. But it never happened and the team were no longer taken seriously.

It’s not difficult to understand why earthquake prediction is so difficult: rocks aren’t transparent and gathering data from the depths of the earth is much harder than gathering data from the sky. Seismologists would be delighted if they could realize the suggestion made by Arthur C. Clarke in his short story “The Fires Within” (1949):

Sonar, as you will know, is the acoustic equivalent of radar, and although less familiar is older by some millions of years, since bats use it very effectively to detect insects and obstacles at night. Professor Hancock intended to send high-powered supersonic pulses into the ground and to build up from the returning echoes an image of what lay beneath. The picture would be displayed on a cathode ray tube and the whole system would be exactly analogous to the type of radar used in aircraft to show the ground through cloud.

Nearly seventy years on, we’re still waiting for a geoscope like that. Seismology is still a hobbled science and earthquakes are still mysterious and frightening things. As Sherlock Holmes says in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” (1892): “Data! data! Data! … I can’t make bricks without clay.” But seismologists have done a lot with the limited data they’ve got, as you’ll learn here. Writing clearly and colloquially, Masson traces the history of mankind’s attempts to understand earthquakes, describes their effects on history, discusses related phenomena like volcanoes and tsunamis, and explains why seismologists don’t use the “Richter scale”. The Million Death Quake has a hyperbolic title and a misleading subtitle, but it’s one of the best popular science books I’ve come across.

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Volcanoes A Beginners Guide by Rosaly LopesVolcanoes: A Beginner’s Guide, Rosaly Lopes (Oneworld 2010)

My first introduction to volcanoes was fictional: Willard Price’s Volcano Adventure (1956), which stands out in his Adventure series because it centres on something inanimate, not on animals like lions or gorillas or elephants. This book by the NASA scientist Rosaly Lopes is factual but equally enjoyable. And some of it would fit well into Volcano Adventure anyway:

[V]olcanoes come with different sizes, shapes and temperaments. It is fascinating to study what causes these differences and understand that, while generalizations are possible, each volcano has its distinct quirks, just like people. We could also compare volcanoes to cats: with few exceptions, they spend most of their lives asleep. (ch. 1, “What are volcanoes?”, pg. 1)

When a volcano wakes, look out. They’ve slain cities, devastated eco-systems and shaped landscapes. They’re also shaped cultures. Like a thunderstorm or earthquake, an erupting volcano raises a big question in the minds of human observers: What caused something so powerful and impressive? Our explanations began with myth and moved to science. And they moved a long time ago: the ancient philosopher Anaxagoras “proposed that volcanic eruptions were caused by great winds within the Earth, blowing through narrow passages” (pg. 5) and becoming hot by friction. Two-and-a-half millennia later, scientists are plotting “silica (SiO2) content” against “alkali content” as they classify “different volcanic rocks” (ch. 2, “How volcanoes erupt”, pg. 15).

But Anaxogaras’ principles are still at work: seek the explanation in mindless mechanism, not in supernatural mind. Classification is another essential part of science. In vulcanology, the scientific study of volcanoes, magmas are classified and so are eruptions, from subdued to spectacular: Icelandic and Hawaiian are on the subdued side, Peléean, Plinian and Ultraplinian on the spectacular, with Strombolian and Vulcanian in between. Some eruptions are easy to understand and investigate. Some are difficult. Volcanoes can be as simple or complicated as their names. Compare Laki, on Iceland, with Eyjafjallajökull, also on Iceland.

Laki is an example of an eco-slayer:

Although the eruption did not kill anyone directly, its consequences were disastrous for farmland, animals and humans alike: clouds of hydrofluoric acid and sulphur dioxide compounds caused the deaths of over half of Iceland’s livestock and, ultimately, the deaths – mostly from starvation – of about 9,000 people, a third of the population. The climatic effects of the eruption were felt elsewhere in Europe; the winter of 1783-4 as noted as being particularly cold. (ch. 3, “Hawaiian and Icelandic eruptions: fire fountains and lava lakes”, pg. 31)

Lopes goes on to look at city-slayers like Mount Pelée and Vesuvius, but they can be less harmful to the environment. A spectacular eruption can be over quickly and release relatively little gas and ash into the atmosphere. And death-dealing is only half the story: volcanoes also give life, because they enrich the soil. They enrich experience too, not just with eruptions but with other phenomena associated with vulcanism: geysers, thermal springs, mudpools and so on.

And that’s just the planet Earth. Lopes also discusses the rest of the solar system, from Mercury, Venus and Mars to the moons of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. The rocky planets have volcanoes more or less like those on earth, but the moons of the gas giants offer an apparent paradox: cryovolcanoes, or “cold volcanoes”, which erupt ice and water, not superheated lava. On Neptune’s moon Triton, whose surface is an “extremely cold” -235ºC, cryovulcanism may even involve frozen nitrogen. The hypothesis is that under certain conditions, it’s heated by sunlight, turns into a gas and “explodes” in the “near-vacuum of Triton’s environment” (ch. 11, “The exotic volcanoes of the outer solar system”, pg. 138).

Hot or cold, big or small, on the earth or off it, volcanoes are fascinating things and this is an excellent introduction to what they do and why they do it.

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Classic Horror Stories by H.P. LovecraftH.P. Lovecraft: The Classic Horror Stories, edited by Roger Luckhurst (Oxford University Press 2013)

Lovecraft has come a long way. From the margins to the mountebanks, you might say, because he’s getting serious interest from American and British academics nowadays. In France, he got it a long time ago:

In the late 1960s, the French academic Maurice Lévy wrote a thesis on Lovecraft as a serious fantasiste, continuing the French love of all things tinged with Poe. In turn, the radical philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used Lovecraft as a touchstone for notions of unstable being and becoming-other in their revolutionary manifesto, A Thousand Plateaus (1980). (“Introduction”, pg. xiii)

I didn’t realize it was as bad as that. Then again, I already knew that the Trotskyist gasbag China Miéville had been influenced by Lovecraft and had intensively interrogated issues around Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia. Roger Luckhurst interrogates them too. After all, they’re a glaring flaw in an important and highly influential writer. How could HPL have been so egregiously wrong and in such an offensive way?

Well, perhaps he wasn’t wrong and perhaps he wouldn’t have written so imaginatively and powerfully without his crime-think. The psychologist Hans Eysenck suggested that psychoticism — which is distinct from psychosis – was essential to genius. But was HPL a genius? In his way, I think he was. It wasn’t a purely literary way and perhaps HPL is bigger than literature. He wasn’t a genius like Dickens or Kipling, because you don’t read Lovecraft for literary skill, psychological subtlety and clever characterization. No, you read him for sweep and scale, grandeur and grotesqueness, darkness and density. You should also read him for humour:

In February the McGregor boys from Meadow Hill were out shooting woodchucks, and not far from the Gardner place bagged a very peculiar specimen. The proportions of its body seemed slightly altered in a queer way impossible to describe, while its face had taken on an expression which no one ever saw in a woodchuck before. (“The Colour out of Space”, 1927)

Like J.G. Ballard, Lovecraft is often misread as lacking humour. In fact, like Ballard, he’s often very funny. This book is a joke he would have appreciated: there’s something blackly humorous about his posthumous elevation to hard covers and high-quality paper under the auspices of the Oxford University Press. His work is now getting more care than his body did: as Luckhurst notes in the introduction, HPL died of stomach cancer at 47 as “an unknown and unsuccessful pulp writer” (pg. xii). Is he better in a pulp paperback, with battered covers, yellowing paper and no notes? Yes, I think he is, but he’s best of all when he’s both paperback and hardback. I don’t like literary studies in their modern form, but Roger Luckhurst doesn’t slather HPL in jargon or suffocate the stories with notes.

So the notes aren’t intrusive, but they are instructive – for example, about HPL’s modesty and self-doubt. Did he really think “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936) “displayed evidence of a ‘lack of general ability’ and a mind corrupted by ‘too much reading of pulp fiction’” (“Explanatory Notes”, pg. 470)? Then he was a giant who mistook himself for a pygmy. But that’s better than the reverse. Most of his greatness is collected here, from “The Call of Cthulhu” to “The Shadow Out of Time”, though I would have dropped “The Horror at Red Hook” and included “The Music of Erich Zann”. I would also like to drop China Miéville and include J.G. Ballard, but unfortunately HPL didn’t influence Ballard. I wish he had. Mutual influence would have been even better.

Nietzsche did influence Lovecraft and Lovecraft’s work can be read as, in part, an attempt to confront the death of God. Spirit departs the world; science invades. Where are wonder and horror to be found now? In “The Call of Cthulhu” or “At the Mountains of Madness”, stories that draw on astronomy, geology and biology to awe us with space, time and organic possibility. And Lovecraft, unlike Nietzsche or Ballard, recognized the importance of mathematics. That’s most evident here in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933), which mixes trans-Euclidean geometry with ancient superstition. But maths isn’t the only influence on this story: so is M.P. Shiel’s novel The House of Sounds (1896). I didn’t know about that and I’m glad to have learnt it. That’s good scholarship, introducing readers to older authors and deeper influences. It still doesn’t feel right to read Lovecraft on clean white paper in a heavy book, but it’s good that he’s come up in the world. Let him bask in the sun before the Übermensch arrives.

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Front cover of Himalaya edited by Philip ParkerHimalaya: The Exploration and Conquest of the Greatest Mountains on Earth, general editor Philip Parker with foreword by Peter Hillary (Conway 2013)

A book with spectacular images and spectacular stories. In the nineteenth century, early mountaineers confronted and conquered the Alps. Then they looked for new challenges. They found them in a much higher and much harder mountain-range lying to the north of India:

For thousands of years the Himalaya has captured the imaginations of explorers, writers and those who have lived among this spectacular, remote and often dangerous landscape. This is a land that demands superlatives – it is the highest mountain range in the world, one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world, home to all of the world’s independent mountains exceeding 8,000 metres (26,246 feet) above sea level, the “eight thousanders”, and some of the greatest river systems on earth. (ch. 1, “Anatomy of the Himalaya: The formation and topography of the range”, Madeleine Lewis, pg. 13)

Opposite that description is one of the spectacular images: a satellite photo showing India colliding with Eurasia to throw up the crumpled band of the world’s highest mountains. The collision has taken place over millions of years, creating a patchwork of blue ocean, green and brown lowlands, and white mountains. Himalaya means “Snow-Abode” in Sanskrit, the ancient Indic language that inspired European scholars to discover the common roots of two linguistic outliers separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years: Icelandic, spoken on a cold island in the far north, and Bengali, spoken on a warm delta in the deep south.

This book is about a parallel exploration by incoming Europeans: of geography, geology, ethnography and the limits of their own biology. Orography, or the mapping of mountains, is part of geography, but Europeans had to climb a psychological barrier before they became true orographers. For example, one of the first great explorers of Tibet was the Italian missionary Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733). For him, the Himalayan mountains were “the very picture of desolation, horror and death itself” (ch. 3, “Early Travellers and Adventurers: The Himalaya to 1815”, pg. 41). As Stewart Weaver, the author of that chapter, remarks:

It is clear that in 1715 the romantic appreciation for mountain glory had yet to take hold of the Western imagination; the Himalaya was a desolate and fearful obstacle to be crossed out of missionary necessity, perhaps, but otherwise to be strenuously avoided. (Ibid.)

Mountaineering rose in Europe as religion declined. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Divinity retreated and humanity advanced, climbing to new heights in all kinds of ways, from science to music. Vivaldi and Mozart didn’t write music to conquer mountains by; Beethoven and Wagner did. This spirit of adventure – or hubris – was European and the older idea that climbing a mountain is sacrilege has kept Europeans off the top of a mountain even more challenging than Everest: Kangchenjunga. The British mountaineers George Band and Joe Brown could have been the first, but refrained from climbing the last few yards to the very top: the leader of their expedition had “promised the Sikkimese authorities that they would not step onto the summit out of respect for Kangchenjunga’s status as a holy mountain” (ch. 8, “The ‘Golden Age’: 1953-1960”, pg. 147).

That was in 1954. Forty-nine years earlier, in 1905, another Briton had made an attempt viâ the notorious “Yalung Glacier”. He became much better-known in other fields: mountaineering is not how Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) made his notorious name. But he confirmed his courage and daring in the Himalaya, having climbed extensively in the Alps, and fully deserves the sidebox he receives here as a “Mystic, poet, magician, pansexual and Satanist” (ch. 5, “The Opening Phase”, pg. 62). After all, he was “part of the first serious attempts on K2 and Kangchenjunga” and “identified the route that would eventually be used in the conquest of each mountain” (ibid.). “Eventually” is the operative word: Crowley and the expedition-leader Oscar Eckenstein shared an “iconoclastic contempt for the ‘stuffy’ Alpine Club”, but “once again, accomplished Alpine climbers” proved “unprepared for the scale of the Himalaya” (pg. 61).

No-one had thought to use “supplemental oxygen” in the Alps, for example, but it began to seem essential in the Himalaya: “at the top of Mount Everest there is approximately one-third of the oxygen available at sea level” (pg. 63). There were debates about the propriety of its use, just as there had been about the use of crampons and other climbing aids in the Alps. One thing was a big argument in its favour: death. People have regularly died of altitude sickness in the Himalaya. Avalanches, rock-fall, cold and disease take an even heavier toll: four men died during Eckenstein’s and Crowley’s attempt on Kangchenjunga. The great Austrian Hermann Buhl (1924-1957) died in the Himalaya too. He had solo’d Nanga Parbat and was making an attempt on “the neighbouring peak of Chogolisa” when he and his companion Kurt Diemberger were forced to retreat by a storm “when only 305 metres (1,000 feet) below the summit” (ch. 8, pg. 131). During the ascent, Buhl “fell to his death through a cornice”.

His body has never been discovered. The body of George Mallory (1886-1924), another famous Himalayan casualty, was discovered in 1999 after lying on Everest for seventy-five years. Had he reached the summit? And if he did, how did he feel? Sometimes conquest isn’t satisfying. In this chapter, another spectacular image shows a bearded mountaineer sprawling on a rock-outcrop above a sea of clouds and a near-vertical snow-slope. It’s described like this:

Bill Tilman takes a precarious rest on … Nanda Devi during his 1936 ascent of the mountain. When he and his summit partner Noel Odell reached the top, Tilman’s initial euphoria was followed by melancholy. As he later wrote, he had a “feeling of sadness that the mountain had succumbed, that the proud head of the goddess was bowed”. (ch. 6, “Himalaya Between the Wars 1919-1939”, pg. 79)

And yet Tilman was a “famously taciturn misogynist”: the psychology of mountaineers is another part of why mountaineering is so interesting. Mallory may have conquered Everest in 1926; Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay definitely did in 1953, but Hillary didn’t ask Norgay to photograph him on the summit. The only photos of the moment are of the Nepali, not the New Zealander, apparently because Hillary didn’t want any taken of himself. Quixotry or modesty aside, it was an appropriate partnership: one by one, the Himalayan peaks have been conquered by combining European psychology with Nepali physiology. The environment of Europe has created human beings who want to climb very high mountains and the environment of Nepal has created human beings who can carry supplies in thin air.

This book also covers the medicine of mountaineering: the effects on the human body of thin air and low temperatures. Nepalis are adapted to both: they’ve evolved the right kind of lungs and blood to live at high altitude. That’s why they were hired as porters by the unadapted outsiders from Europe, who were sometimes killed by the challenges they set themselves. But there’s another kind of biology in the Himalaya, and another mystery. Crowley was To Mega Therion, or “The Great Beast”. But does another great beast live in the Himalaya: the Yeti? Probably not: bears seem to explain all the stories, tracks and hair-samples.

And the chances that there’s really something mysterious there dwindle by the year: Himalayan mountaineering is increasingly crowded, increasingly bereft of solitude and glamour. Everest is becoming strewn with rubbish, for example, and the climbing challenges of the Himalaya are increasingly contrived: not first ascents, but new routes, new methods, new times of the year. Sic Transit Gloria Montis – “So Passes the Glory of the Mountain”. But this book explains that vanishing glory and opens a window on a fascinating region of the earth, describing history, humanity, geology and technology, and displaying everything from multi-coloured Tibetan script and glaring death-gods to awe-inspiring walls of sun-slanted ice-rock and Aleister Crowley outside a tent.

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Front cover of Granite and Grit by Ronald TurnbullGranite and Grit: A Walker’s Guide to the Geology of British Mountains, Ronald Turnbull (Francis Lincoln 2011)

For a small country, Britain has had a big influence on the world. Like a lot of other things, modern geology started here. There are several reasons for that and one is very simple: pioneering geologists had mountains of material to work with. According to the author, “Britain has the most varied geology of any country in the world.” This is an excellent introduction to the rocks of the realm, from gneiss in the Outer Hebrides to granite on Dartmoor. I like the way Turnbull discusses not only how rocks affect your eyes – their colour, texture and contours – but also how they affect your boots. He’s a hillwalker, not a professional geologist, so he conveys a strong sense of place and of how Britain’s landscape varies. But there’s more than geological variation here: Britain isn’t just rich in rocks and its landscape is shaped by more than physics and chemistry. This is the caption to one spectacular photo of a misty mountain:

Bwlch y Saethau, where according to legend King Arthur battled his nephew Mordred; behind, Y Lliwedd stands at the centre of a far greater act of violence, the Lower Rhyolite Tuff event. (ch. 10, “Redhot Flying Avalanches: Ignimbrites in Snowdonia”, pg. 98)

Britain’s varied mountains are named in Britain’s varied languages: Welsh, English and Gaelic give different flavours to the landscapes they describe, from Carnedd Dafydd to Eskdale, from Ingleborough to Stuc a’ Chroin, from Ardnamurchan to Mynydd Mawr. But English names split into Norse and Anglo-Saxon, which have different flavours too. Underlying all these languages is a common ancestor, just as some very different rocks have common ancestors too. Heat, compression and erosion change rocks; time, separation and mutation change languages. So Turnbull is writing about two kinds of history as he discusses different parts of Britain: geological history and linguistic history.

Linguistics dwarfs geology in complexity, but geology dwarfs linguistics in time. To understand why Britain looks the way it does, you have to go back billions of years and trace its movement over many thousands of kilometres. You also have to study seemingly exotic things like volcanoes, glaciers and tropical botany, all of which are central parts of Britain’s geology. Turnbull is a relaxed but knowledgeable guide to some big events and some big transformations and because he isn’t a professional he knows how to write for a general reader. He doesn’t just inform, he re-orientates: you won’t look at Britain in the same way:

Black pointy islands of volcanic ash rise above the sea, the water around them a froth of falling ash. The shores of the new islands get washed away by tsunamis as chunks of other islands fall into the sea. Lava slides down and then runs level, to form black land made of glass. The glassy ground crackles as it cools, and then quickly weathers to orange shards and gravel. Showers of sharp-edged volcanic rubble fall into the sea, forming seabed layers 300m deep which will eventually be the summit of Snowdon itself. (ch. 10, pp. 103-4)

Geology is like cuisine in reverse: from the cooked dish you have to work out the recipe. Landscapes that seem inert can have cataclysmic pasts, full of fire and thunder or flood and frost. There are centuries of ingenious deduction and painstaking observation behind the chatty text and attractive photos in this book, but there are still mysteries to solve. More maths will be needed, because matter obeys mathematical rules in all its transformations, whether geological or culinary. And those material transformations have immaterial parallels in linguistics and sociology, where maths is the key to understanding too. And science itself has metamorphosed and mutated. Geology is an important subject not just for its contemporary research but also for its influence on other fields. It made scientists realize the vast age of the earth. Charles Darwin used that idea to transform biology. Like the pioneering geologists, he was British. That isn’t a coincidence and it’s something else that increases the power of this book. The planet starts here. So does the universe.

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