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In Krakatoa Simon Winchester, author of The Map That Changed the World and The Professor and the Madman, focuses his considerable research powers on one of the most cataclysmic events of modern history: the volcanic eruption, in 1883, of the South East Asian island of Krakatoa, which resulted in the deaths of 36,000 people and sent shock-waves around the world. But what at the time was a mysterious, almost supernatural phenomenon has become, under the precepts of the contemporary science of plate tectonics, explicable if no less tragic.
Winchester veers between eyewitness accounts by survivors and the limited scientific measurements of the time in an attempt to describe the indescribable. The event "is still said to be the most violent explosion ever recorded and experienced by modern man", he writes. "Six cubic miles of rock had been blasted out of existence, had been turned into pumice and ash and uncountable billions of particles of dust." Yet words and numbers can barely hint at the scale of the calamity, which resulted in tsunamis that washed whole villages into the ocean and forever changed the very topography of the area.
The author also explores the social and cultural topography, noting that "Orthodox Islam, its revival in part triggered by tragic events such as the great cataclysm, was totally transformed in Java during the nineteenth century, with fundamentalism, militancy and profound hostility to non-Muslims its watchwords". At times Winchester seems to overstate his case, and the link he finds between Krakatoa and the rise of anti-Western sentiment in the Islamic world isn't especially convincing. But by weaving together the disaster with science, communications, politics, religion and economics, he has come up with a comprehensive and often fascinating glimpse into the way the world, and our perception of it, can change in an instant. --Shawn Conner, Amazon.ca [via]