Magazine article The Spectator

The Pulling Power of Volcanoes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Pulling Power of Volcanoes

Article excerpt

At a new exhibition in the Bodleian Libraries Laura Gascoigne discovers the pulling power of volcanoes

In the mid-6th century, legend has it, St Brendan set off from Ireland with a currach-load of monks on a mission to find the Isle of the Blessed. The Irish like to think that his Atlantic odyssey took him to Newfoundland before the Vikings; what seems more probable, if you believe the medieval account, is that it brought him close to the shores of Iceland where he passed a mountainous island with 'a great smoke issuing from its summit' and 'flames shooting up into the sky'.

If there were any doubts that what is meant here is a volcano, they would be dispelled by the drawing in the margin of the version of the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis currently on show at the Bodleian Libraries. This 14th-century manuscript is not the oldest object in the Bodleian's new exhibition Volcanoes. That honour belongs to a carbonised scrap of papyrus from a private library in Herculaneum buried during the great AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius described by the 17-year-old Pliny the Younger, who survived it. His less fortunate uncle, Pliny the Elder, who bequeathed the name 'Plinian' to the particular sort of violent ash cloud in which he perished, is remembered in the show by a Renaissance manuscript of one of his letters.

But this is not an antiquarian exhibition. Its curator is David Pyle, professor of earth sciences at the University of Oxford, and its thesis is that marshalling historical evidence of past explosions is the best way of predicting future ones. When dealing with capricious geological phenomena measured in hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands, of years, the further back in history you can go the better.

Volcanoes have fascinated scientific minds since the early Greek-Sicilian philosopher Empedocles concluded from studying Etna that rather than clinging to a rock, as Boy George would have it, humanity was sitting on a hot potato. The active volcanoes of Magna Graecia and the Cyclades -- the currently peaceable tourist island of Santorini blew its top in 197 BC and again in AD 46 -- provided the ancient Greeks and Romans with plenty of evidence of this fact. But it wasn't until the Age of Exploration that interest in vulcanology really sparked.

Like St Brendan, most early explorers of volcanoes seem to have been priests; perhaps they felt that closeness to Earth's molten core would bring them 'nearer, my God, to thee'. Whatever the reason, the early annals of vulcanology are full of inquisitive monks on scientific missions to get to the fiery bottom of creation. In 1664 the German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher published his pioneering researches into the workings of Vesuvius, Etna and Stromboli in the treatise Mundus Subterraneus; illustrated with some of the first cutaway diagrams, it established that the phenomenon of 'rebelching mountains' originated 'in the very in-most privy-Chambers and retiring places of the Earth'. Kircher wasn't inquisitive enough to test the theory in person, unlike the Spanish Dominican Fray Blas de Castillo who, in 1538, had himself lowered down into the Nicaraguan volcano Masaya in a basket with a hammer, a crucifix and a flagon of wine. His motivation was monetary as well as scientific: it was hoped that the red-hot magma might contain precious metals, but it cooled disappointingly into worthless scoria.

In the 1790s, the Italian priest Lazzaro Spallanzani, chair of natural history at the University of Pavia, conducted some more sophisticated experiments on volcanic rock samples brought back from his travels in southern Italy, subjecting them to intense heat in a smelting furnace before extracting a liquid that contained hydrochloric acid, as he discovered by testing it on his tongue. …

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