Furnace of Creation, Cradle of Destruction: A Journey to the Birthplace of Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Tsunamis

Furnace of Creation, Cradle of Destruction: A Journey to the Birthplace of Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Tsunamis

by Roy Chester, Bill Weideman

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Over the past few years, devastating tsunamis off the coast of the Indian Ocean have killed hundreds of thousands of people. Even more alarmingly, scientists predict that these tsunamis, as well as a series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, may eventually threaten Hawaii, California, and Oregon. The force behind this trinity of natural disasters is plate…  See more details below


Over the past few years, devastating tsunamis off the coast of the Indian Ocean have killed hundreds of thousands of people. Even more alarmingly, scientists predict that these tsunamis, as well as a series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, may eventually threaten Hawaii, California, and Oregon. The force behind this trinity of natural disasters is plate tectonics. Perhaps the greatest advance made in the field of earth science, the plate-tectonics theory argues that the surface of the Earth is broken into large plates, which change in size and position over time. The edges of these plates rub against each other, causing earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis that continue to inflict such intense destruction to the surface our planet.

In Furnace of Creation, Cradle of Destruction, renowned scientist Roy Chester reveals the fascinating history of this discovery and unveils one of the great mysteries of our time: how the surface of our planet was created and how it has evolved. From the early discoveries of Sir Francis Bacon to the beginnings of geology as a science and the controversy surrounding the theory of continental drift, this impeccably researched book reveals the evolution of a vital scientific theory. Lucid and compelling, Furnace of Creation, Cradle of Destruction offers a long-awaited explanation of the underlying forces that shape our world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

The title promises tales of violent disasters, but in fact British oceanographer Chester draws readers into a detailed history of geology and the science of plate tectonics. He briefly reviews premodern explanations of natural disasters as acts of God or the gods. Modern geology grew from three tenets: the earth was very old; it had changed a great deal since its formation; and the changes were natural, not divinely produced. By the late 19th century, fossil and geological evidence showed that the continents had once been joined-but explaining the dynamics of continental movement would require mapping the ocean floor, measuring changes in the earth's magnetic field and diving deep underwater where sulfur-rich hydrothermal vents fed strange and alien life forms. Sidebars highlight infamous natural disasters throughout recorded history, ending with the 2004 Asian tsunami. As in a textbook, there is clear and concise explanation, each chapter concluding with a review. Chester ends with a look at how understanding plate tectonics has made it possible to monitor for early signs of a natural disaster. 8 b&w photos, 18 illus. (July)

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From the Publisher
“Eminently readable!...outstanding book provides a clear explanation of the…‘disaster trinities’... A rare and refreshing read!.. Highly recommended.” — Choice magazine

“… full of good science, interesting characters…a fine resource for a high school geology student or teacher.” — NSTA Recommends

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Brilliance Audio
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5.10(w) x 7.00(h) x 1.50(d)

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If we needed an event to remind us of the great danger that could arise from natural disasters, then the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 played the role well. The tragedy of the Asian earthquake, and the Indian Ocean tsunami that followed it, unfolded over the period of Christmas 2004. Viewers watched in horror as television screens across the world broadcast stark images of death and destruction as a tsunami struck the coastlines of the Indian Ocean. This was real. This was disaster brought into the living room.

The response from the public was immediate and unstinting. But there was something else here as well. People had witnessed the raw power of nature at its destructive worst, and there was a thirst for understanding how it had happened. I had retired from my university post at that time, but I was asked to give a series of public lectures on volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis—that great trinity of natural disasters. During these lectures, I found audiences were fascinated by the fact that there was one single underlying thread that controlled the way the surface of our planet had evolved; a thread that underpinned the way volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis were generated. That thread was the theory of plate tectonics.

Using this theory, I could explain to audiences the causes of the trinity of natural disasters in a scientific manner. But this raised a question with me: How would volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis have appeared to people in the past, before the advent of modern theories about plate tectonics or, even more intriguing, in the time before science? How would ancient cultures view destructive visitations in the shape of these natural phenomena that threatened to destroy their world? And how did our thinking evolve as we moved toward the system of knowledge in place today?

To try to answer questions such as these, I have gone back in time. First to the early cultures, where notions of the natural world were deeply wrapped in myth and legend. Then to a period in which scientific thought was starting to emerge, but where ideas were constrained by religious beliefs. Finally, to the time when restrictions were finally thrown off and the only constraint to scientific progress was the limitation of human ingenuity.

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A central theme in understanding plate tectonics is the notion that the continents have somehow wandered about the surface of the earth. Moving continents is not a new idea. It first emerged during the great "age of exploration," when the first reliable maps of the world began to appear. As early as 1596, the Dutch mapmaker Abraham Ortelius, in his work Thesaurus Geographic, put forward the idea that that the Americas had broken away from Europe. In 1620, Francis Bacon, the English philosopher, court politician, and "father of deductive reasoning," remarked on how the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America appeared to fit together. So close was the fit that he suggested the continents of America and Africa had, in fact, once been joined, and later it was suggested that they had been separated by the flood—perhaps the first attempt to explain the mechanism behind the movement of the continents.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, two oceanographers diving in the deep-sea submersible Alvin on the Galapagos Ridge in the Pacific Ocean came upon one of the most astonishing sights in the history of natural science. They had discovered a staggeringly new biological community of mainly unknown animal species: massive clumps of large red tube-dwelling worms, fields of giant clams and mussels and blind crabs, all living around hot springs emerging from the seabed on an underwater mountain range.

More than 300 years separate the emergence of the earliest suggestions that the continents had moved and the discovery of the Galapagos hot springs, but both developments may be thought of as crucial stages along the timeline of a great scientific revolution during which the concept of continental drift led to the theory of seafloor spreading and finally to our current understanding of plate tectonics.

For earth science, the theory of plate tectonics was as important as Darwin's Origin of Species was for biology and the Theory of Everything will be for physics. The reason is that plate tectonics offers a unified theory to explain the way the earth has evolved by identifying the processes that have governed the way the surface features of the planet have developed—processes that also control volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. In fact, so far-reaching were the implications of the plate tectonics theory that the oft-overused expression "the textbooks had to be rewritten" was, in this case, literally true.

Often science only advances when currently held wisdom is challenged, and the road to plate tectonics is littered with some of the greatest controversies in the history of geology. Driven forward by wave after wave of new evidence, however, the revolution gathered momentum until eventually it became unstoppable. The new evidence came from many sources and brought together scientists in the fields of physics, geophysics, chemistry, biology, geology, and the relatively young discipline of oceanography. As the various lines of evidence began to gel, it became apparent that unravelling the full story of plate tectonics was like solving a massive scientific jigsaw puzzle.

The development of plate tectonics is one of the greatest stories in the forward march of modern science. By using as our central theme the changes in the way humankind has viewed volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis, we will follow the journey that led to plate tectonics from its origins in myth and legend to the science of modern times.

That is the purpose of the book—to portray the progress of human understanding from ancient mythmaking to scientific enlightenment.

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Meet the Author

Roy Chester (Liverpool, England) retired as Proudman Professor of Oceanography in the Department of Earth and Sciences at The University of Liverpool in 2004. He is the author of Marine Geochemistry, a book that became a classic text in its field.

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