Skip to main content

Catastrophes! – David Prothero ****

There is something interesting about the capacity of words on a page to transport you to another time and place, to evoke such strong emotions, and to draw you in completely and make you forget about what’s going on around you.
This is what happens on many occasions throughout this book with the dramatic eye-witness accounts of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and other natural disasters. We relive from the perspective of those who were there at the time some of the worst natural disasters ever to have hit us. These accounts are powerful and harrowing, and it’s impossible not to become fully immersed in them.
Possibly the most powerful account is that of Charles Davy, living in Lisbon during the 1755 earthquake that destroyed the city. It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like to witness such a huge amount of destruction and chaos among those living in the city at the time. As in some of the other events that we look at in the book, it’s the death tolls that are most shocking. Between 60,000 and 100,000 people died in the 1755 Lisbon quake (with tens of thousands beyond the city also losing their lives). In the Indian Ocean tsunami of Boxing Day, 2004, the figure was 250,000, with millions also misplaced. It’s difficult to get your head around these numbers.
Each kind of extreme geologic or weather event – we also look at landslides, floods and volcano eruptions, among others – is given a chapter of its own in the book. In each chapter, after reading accounts of specific disasters, we go on to look in some detail at the science behind the phenomena, and touch on issues around predicting disasters and planning for them. The horrific accounts of particular disasters really make you want to read these sections to understand their physical causes, and they emphasise how important it is we are well-prepared for future disasters.
One theme running through the book is our powerlessness in the face of these extreme events. Prediction is difficult and sometimes impossible, author Donald Prothero explains (and this is something the book rightly argues the public need to appreciate to a greater extent). As for planning for disasters, there seem to be two big issues. Firstly, where good planning is possible, sometimes governments have been unwilling to take the necessary steps to protect their citizens. Second, even where we do try to mitigate the effects of disasters, the measures we choose are often counter-productive – levees, for example, may contain flooding in a particular region but they often concentrate flooding downstream.
As a combination of dramatic, personal accounts of recent and historic catastrophes, the science behind these disasters, and other surrounding issues, this is probably as good an introduction to natural disasters as you’re likely to find. You’ll be left with a good appreciation of the causes of these extreme events and of the power of nature and, perhaps most importantly, an understanding of the impact these catastrophes can have on human beings.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.


Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…