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 Published by the American Geological Institute
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

August 2000


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Book review
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Book review
Furious Earth: The Science and Nature of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Tsunamis by Ellen J. Prager. McGraw-Hill (2000). 235 p. ISBN 0-07-135161-2. llus. Cloth, $24.95.

 Robert L. Kovach

Furious Earth gives the nonscientist a perspective on the science behind understanding the powerful forces of Nature that produce natural disasters. The book focuses on the devastation such phenomena create, efforts at predicting their occurrences and steps that can and should be taken to mitigate them. Author Ellen Prager and her associate authors Kate Hutton, Costas Synolakis and Stanley Williams describe the effects of three of Earth’s most dramatic natural events: earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis.

The book’s first chapter, “The Underlying and Dynamic Earth,” provides an illuminating overview of plate tectonic theory. Particularly enjoyable is the discussion of the theory’s formulation. The chapter describes Earth’s interior and where the action of the dynamic Earth occurs — at the boundaries of the plates as they move slowly relative to each other. The discussion of the driving forces, convection and gravity’s downward pull of slabs is well written for a layperson.

The second chapter, “Earthquakes,” nicely summarizes earthquakes: the reasons for their spatial occurrence, how their sizes are determined, aftershocks and foreshocks of main earthquakes, and the frustrations of trying to predict them. The authors use the 1994 Northridge, Calif., earthquake as an example of damage that a magnitude-6.7 quake can deliver to a metropolitan area. The Northridge quake produced damage in apartment buildings with carports, illustrating the dangers of soft first-story construction common in earthquake-prone regions. One of the surprises of the quake’s damage was the failure of welded beam-to-column connections in steel-framed buildings.

Chapter three, “Volcanoes,” presents a cogent discussion of volcanoes, their relation to plate boundaries and hot spots, and how they are studied and monitored. Some specific eruptions are described in detail: Galeras, Colombia, 1993; Vesuvius, A.D. 79; Mount St. Helens, 1980; Nevado del Ruiz, 1985; and Mount Pinatubo, Philippines, 1991. The authors vividly describe these volcanic disasters and illustrate the difficulties of forecasting volcanic eruptions. Especially well written are the points that volcanoes have unique personalities and that generalizations about universal monitoring and forecasting must be made cautiously.

While the authors stress the need for risk assessment, adequate emergency planning and implementation of evacuation plans, their discussion needs a broader perspective of the social and political difficulties inherent to some volcanic regions. For example: Why is the Philippine government encouraging housing and commercial development around the Taal volcano, some 60 kilometers due south of Manila, which violently erupted in 1911? A disaster recovery scenario for Taal is frightening. Do the residents find such a high level of risk acceptable or are they just not aware of the true hazards?

“Tsunamis,” the fourth chapter, is a lucid discussion of modeling and how tsunamis form, travel and strike the shore. The difficulty of scaling laboratory models to emulate natural conditions has put computer simulations at the forefront of tsunami research. Scientists are now realizing, however, that predicting a tsunami’s inundation effects strongly depends on the complex interplay of the topography of the coastline and the underlying sea-floor, and on focusing and defocusing effects. The example of the December 1992 Flores Island tsunami in Indonesia, which struck a small coastal island normally sheltered from direct ocean waves, drives home the near impossibility of predicting tsunamis. The authors emphasize the need to expect the unexpected, and that coastal residents need to be continually educated to recognize the warning signs of a tsunami.

A few errors in a book of this nature may or may not be forgivable. Some astute readers may roll their eyes to learn on page xv that the freezing and boiling points of water are minus 273 Kelvin and minus 373 Kelvin. In addition, a few misspelled names and words were spotted: p. 41, Weichert not Wiechart; p. 31, Wegener not Wedener; and p. 170, maremoto not maremotto. Tighter editing would have prevented many of the indexed words or phrases, such as aa, nue´e ardente and wavelength, from appearing on different pages than given in the index.

But these few shortcomings and minor errors should not deter any general reader captured by the book’s title. Furious Earth serves its purpose of describing how science is helping to prevent future natural disasters.

Kovach teaches in the department of geophysics at Stanford University.


The Idea of Time by Charles H. Holland. John Wiley and Sons Inc. (1999).
150 p. ISBN 0-471-98545-7. Hardcover.

 Marcus M. Key Jr.

Geoscientists are all concerned with time. Geochronologists may date a rock on the scale of billions of years. A seismologist may measure an earthquake’s arrival time on the scale of seconds. We use time to place events in succession when unraveling Earth’s history as well as when predicting future climate change. But how many of us understand what time is, was or shall be?

Charles Holland sets out to explain time in The Idea of Time. Holland is an emeritus fellow in the department of geology at Trinity College, Dublin. He has clearly taken his understanding of time beyond the sense of geologic time he developed as a geologist.

The book’s 12 chapters cover a range of topics including the concept of time, how we measure time, biological clocks, human time, time as recorded in art, geologic time, cosmology and the philosophy of time. Particularly enjoyable are the sections on biological clocks, the evolution of calendars, principles of stratigraphy, and time dilation and relativity. The chapter on the solar system, however, drifted a bit too far from the topic of the book.

The book was obviously written by a geologist, as most of its examples are based on the geosciences — growth banding in Devonian corals in the section on biological clocks, for example. Holland devotes an entire chapter to stratigraphy and another to geochronometry and the history of radiometric dating.

The book has two minor problems. Holland loves history, and many chapters begin with overly long historical summaries. But maybe such lengthy summaries are appropriate in a book about time. Secondly, the author’s geological background is founded in Ireland and the United Kingdom, so some of the examples may be a little obscure for North American readers. On the more editorial side, the book has refreshingly fewer typos than most books these days, but the figures are of mixed quality. The book is up-to-date in most areas, such as the date it provides for the Precambrian/Cambrian boundary; but not in others, such as the age it gives for the universe.

Holland successfully reviews the many facets of geologic time and tackles some conceptually more difficult topics such as what time is, the theory of relativity, the space-time continuum and the human concept of time. The book is intellectually stimulating and offers a good mix of history, philosophy and science (especially geology). It will not be appropriate for everyone on your Christmas shopping list, but it should appeal to geoscientists.

Key is an associate professor in the department of geology at Dickinson College.

On the shelf

The Archaeology of Geological Catastrophes, edited by W.J. McGuire, D.R. Griffiths, P.L. Hancock and I.S. Stewart. Geological Society of London (2000). Special Publication 171. 424 p. ISBN 1-86239-062-2. Illus. Cloth, $150.

Comet Science: The Study of Remnants from the Birth of the Solar System by Jacques Crovisier and Therese Encrenaz. Cambridge University Press (2000). 173 p. ISBN 0-521-64591-3. Illus. Paperback, $19.95.

Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future by Mark Hertsgaard. Broadway Books (2000). 372 p. ISBN 0-7679-0058-8. Cloth, $26.

Exploring the Highest Sierra by James G. Moore. Stanford University Press (2000).
427 p. ISBN 0-8047-3647-2. Illus. Cloth, $49.50.

Marine Geochemistry, edited by Horst D. Schulz and Matthias Zabel. Springer (2000). 455 p. ISBN 3-540-66453-X. Illus. Cloth, $89.95.

Paleobiogeography: Using Fossils to Study Global Change, Plate Tectonics, and Evolution by Bruce S. Lieberman. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers (2000). 208 p. ISBN 0-306-46277-X. Illus. Cloth, $70.

Tectonics of the Nanga Parbat Syntaxis and the Western Himalaya, edited by M.A. Kahn, P.J. Treloar, M.P. Searle and M.Q. Jan. Geological Society of London (2000). Special Publication 170. 492 p. ISBN 1-86239-061-4. Illus. Cloth, $150.

Windows into the Earth: The Geologic Story of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks by Robert B. Smith and Lee J. Siegel. Oxford University Press (2000). 242 p. ISBN 0-19-510597-4. Illus. Paperback, $27.50.

Where to order

Also visit AGI's Earth Science Bookstore to search

American Association of Petroleum Geologists, P.O. Box 979, Tulsa, Okla. 74101-0979. Phone: (800)364-2274. Fax: (918)560-2652. E-mail:

Broadway Books, WWW:

Cambridge University Press, 110 Midland Ave., Port Chester, N.Y. 10573-4390. Phone: (800)872-7423. Fax: (914)937-4712. WWW:

The Geological Society, (London), Unit 7, Brassmill Enterprise Centre, Brassmill Lane, Bath BA1 3JN, U.K. Phone: 44 01225 445046. Fax: 44 01225 442836. Publications may be ordered from AAPG.

Kluwer Academic Publishers, Order Department, P.O. Box 358, Accord Station, Hingham, Mass.  02018-0358. Phone: (781)871-6600. Fax: (781)871-6528. E-mail:

Oxford University Press, Business Office, 2001 Evans Rd., Cary, N.C. 27513. Phone: (800)451-7556. Fax: (919)677-1303.

Springer-Verlag, 333 Meadowlands Parkway, Secaucus, N.J. 07094. Phone: (800)777-4643 ext. 599.

Stanford University Press, Phone: 1-800-872-7423. WWW:

On the Web

www.chemfinder.comLooking for that tricky chemical formula that you always seem to forget? Need to know the density of a particular substance? Try ChemFinder. Not only will you find the answers to the questions above, you’ll also find information such as the boiling and melting point and solubility of various chemicals. Link to other information about the environmental and health hazards of the chemical or view the chemical structure in 3-D.  The USGS published the original National Atlas of the United States in 1970, and in 1997 the agency began compiling a digital database now available at no cost on the Web. The site allows you to customize your map by zooming in and out and downloading different informational layers via FTP (file transfer protocol). Choose your geographical focus and then download information on ferrous mineral mine locations, nuclear waste sites, per capita income, butterfly distribution, watershed boundaries or one of many others. Teaching an intro geology course in the fall? Want your kids to understand what your talking about when you point out a normal fault in a road cut on your next family vacation? Direct them to this page on the PBS Web site. It has great animations of difficult-to-explain geologic phenomena such as dip-slip faulting, plate subduction, secondary and primary wave propagation and several longer animations with detailed explanations of the geologic processes. The animations are part of PBS’ Savage Earth section of its Web site, which offers basic information on many different geologic processes.

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