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Clive Oppenheimer: ‘Eruptions That Shook The World’

August 8, 2011

Lee Rannals for RedOrbit.com

From just the first chapter, the genius of Clive Oppenheimer in the world of volcanology shines in his book “Eruptions That Shook The World.” 

This book is not for the faint at heart when it comes to literature, but obviously a book for one who is ambitious about learning.

“In a way, what I wanted to do with the book was to imagine what the world would be like today if all the volcanoes had been switched off a few million years ago – how different would have been the human trajectory?,” Oppenheimer told RedOrbit.com during an interview.

Oppenheimer begins by detailing the engineering behind volcanoes, doing so in a fashion that seems as though you are paying for a Cambridge University semester’s worth of education for just $30. 

He keeps the readers’ minds open as he covers topics from eruption styles, to the vastness of the role volcanoes have played in our world.

Oppenheimer said during an interview with RedOrbit that his passion for studying volcanoes derived from an early age.

“I was the kid who collected fossils and loved his book on dinosaurs,” he told RedOrbit. “So geology was on the cards from an early age for me.”

He referred to Peter Francis’ “Volcanoes” as an inspiration to him as he traveled around Indonesia after graduating high school.

“He was inspirational, and played a strong part in setting me on the sulfurous journeys I’ve pursued ever since.”

This book could find itself being utilized in two separate environments:  The home environment, and the classroom environment.

For any reader interested in learning more about volcanology, whether it be the history or the science behind it, Oppenheimer’s book is a plethora of information.  However, one should not expect to grasp the knowledge hidden within the black-and-white text within just a week of reading. 

“Eruptions That Shook The World” is a book that should be respected, one that puts your brain to work on each page.

“I hope it can serve as a useful ‘reader’ for students from geology, history, geography, archaeology, environmental science, etc.,” he said. “If you are fascinated by volcanoes I hope I’ve made it accessible enough to reveal the richness and repercussions of the subject.”

Oppenheimer said during the interview that his research is still not complete.  He said he has two “holy grails” left for him to pursue:

“The first, and my main pursuit, is to develop the tools we need to interpret the chemistry of gases released from volcanoes – what, for instance, do the proportions of sulfur and carbon dioxide, that we might measure in the clouds released from a crater, tell us about whether or not the volcano it is more likely to erupt today than it was yesterday?”

He said one geochemist in the 1960s described volcanic gases as “telegrams from the Earth’s interior.”

“Being able to read those telegrams would be a geological equivalent of deciphering the Rosetta Stone, with huge implications for predicting eruptions and for hazard management,” he told RedOrbit during the interview.

He said he also wants to fit volcanoes into the picture of human origins, evolution and history. 

“I want to find human footprints under the ash from some massive eruption in the East African Rift Valley and imagine following them on their journey to the rest of the world!”

Oppenheimer’s passion and life-long dedication to this subject is evident throughout his book.  It’s a subject anyone could approach with caution because of the force that drives these monstrous mountains.  However, Oppenheimer takes it dead-on, fearlessly and boldly, pouring his research into the text that derives from a child-like imagination into a man’s ambition.

“A volcano is like a chemistry set on a massive scale – the crater becomes your own spellbinding laboratory,” he told RedOrbit. “I am totally absorbed on fieldwork – it doesn’t get more elemental than the summit of a volcano, and coaxing temperamental science gear to collect good observations in such harsh environments is a fantastic challenge.”

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