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the Sense of Tsunamis

Simon Winchester

     ... journalist. For decades, Mr. Winchester has been a globe-trotting correspondent for The Guardian. Now with more than a dozen books to his credit, he is well known for his best sellers which include: Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883, The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything. Before becoming a full-time journalist, Mr. Winchester earned a degree in geology from Oxford University and worked in Africa and on offshore oil rigs.


Geology matters. Simon Winchester’s story of the massive volcanic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 and the 4 gigantic tidal waves it created reads like the morning headlines. The doings of the earth can snuff out human achievements in a microsecond, anything we do cannot compare.

And yet, Mr. Winchester says, regular people still have not quite come to terms with the 1967 revolution in the study of geology -- the theory of plate tectonics provided a revolutionary new global picture of how the earth behaves. Geology used to look at little things like fossils. Now focuses on the planet as a whole. Because most non-geologists are still getting used to the idea of plate tectonics, Mr. Winchester offers a short course: the world has about 20 or 25 plates, enormous solid masses (either “Continental” or “Oceanic” plates) moving around very, very slowly on the surface of the earth. These plates are being propelled by convection currents in the earth’s crust that are rising and falling, moving along, impelled by the radioactive decay in the center of the earth.

What happens when these plates collide? It depends on what kind of plates they are. If two continental plates collide, they just crash together and produce mountain ranges. If a continental plate collides with an oceanic plate, the heavy oceanic plate buckles up and goes underneath, it dives or “subducts” below the continental one.

That’s exactly what is happening in southeast Asia, he says. In describing how the Krakatoa volcano was created, he also explains earthquakes and the massive, destructive waves -- tsunamis -- created by both.

The Australian plate is a heavy oceanic plate. It’s moving northward at about 4 inches a year -- very, very slowly in human terms, but fast in geologic time. And it hits the continental plate on which India and Japan and China are all mounted. The oceanic plate starts diving below the continental plate and as it does so, a lot of the edge of the continental plate is sort of knocked off, the oceanic plate taking this material, along with a lot of seawater, down with it.

This “subduction,” Mr. Winchester continues, has an extraordinary and hitherto unknown physical effect -- it lowers the melting point of these rocks so that when they get 50 miles down into the earth, where it is intensely hot, the rocks suddenly melt in a way they wouldn’t if all that watery material had not been scooped down with them.

The melted rock needs somewhere to go and up on top there’s a zone of weakness in the roof. The rock finds these cracks and fractures and out the melted rock roars -- those are the 28 very explosive, dangerous, unpredictable volcanoes one sees in Java, of which Krakatoa was one. The same process creates earthquakes. And both earthquakes and volcanoes create devastating tsunamis.

Krakatoa marked the beginning of the “global village,” Mr. Winchester maintains, because it was the first time people all over the world got news of the devastation -- the submarine telegraph cable had just been invented. The news is now practically instantaneous, but humankind has very, very short memories about natural disasters, Mr. Winchester says. What people are given by geology, whether beautiful beaches or fertile land, can be taken away in an instant.


[This Program was recorded April 21, 2003, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Simon Winchester tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how dramatically ideas about the planet earth changed in 1967, when geologists put forth the theory of plate tectonics, and explains why the theory is revolutionary.

Conversation 1 RealAudio5:57

Conversation 2

Reminding us of how dramatically Darwin’s seminal Origin of Species changed the thinking of those around him in 1859, Mr. Winchester compares it to the effect the idea of plate tectonics had in 1967. Where once geology focused on little things, he says, it now takes in the entire planet. When Krakatoa exploded, the submarine telegraph cable had just been invented and profoundly changed how the world received news of the catastrophe, the beginning he believes of the “global village.” Mr. Winchester gives vivid details of how dramatically the doings of the earth can snuff out mankind’s accomplishments. He summarizes how many different stories he was telling, in addition to the specifics of the Krakatoa volcanic eruption.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:31

Conversation 3

Mr. Winchester concisely summarizes the theory of plate tectonics, starting with subduction. He explains the difference between continental and oceanic plates. He expands on the geological explanation for Krakatoa’s eruption. The overwhelming forces of nature and humankind’s short memory for natural disasters are considered, with examples of where humans insist on living around the world and how people of all religious persuasions come to deify powerful places.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:52

Conversation 4

Java and Sumatra have had a rich religious history, according to Mr. Winchester, who traces the changes and both the religious and political significance at the time Krakatoa erupted and now. Clear in his own mind that colonialism and imperialism are things that should not have happened -- in spite of his great affection for the British Empire -- Mr. Winchester draws parallels between the first modern era episode of anti-Western Islamic militancy at the time of Krakatoa and that led by Osama bin Laden. Mr. Winchester illustrates the importance of words with beguiling stories, including indictments of white colonial rule. He compares the legacies of a variety of fallen empires.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:21

 Conversation 5

Describing his 30 years working for “The Guardian” newspaper, Mr. Winchester recounts having traveled much of the world for them and the remarkable effect it has had on his writing. He gives examples which include tarantulas. Drawing on his works about the making of “The Oxford English Dictionary,” he mourns how few generalists and polymaths there are in Western society today, where specialization is currently triumphant. Rollicking good stories are the common thread of all of his works, Mr. Winchester realizes and gives examples.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:05

Conversation 6

After recounting the confusion that surrounds the name Krakatoa, Mr. Winchester shares the joy he had bringing a wide range of elements together in writing about Krakatoa, the volcano, the tsunami that followed it, the worldwide effects, the geology and more. He credits those who allowed him to nurture his love for geology.

Conversation 1 RealAudio5:05


We thank Simon Winchester for having Krakatoa ready for us all now that it is all too “current.” Nature’s ability to humble us with tsunamis, volcanoes and climate change does not diminish our profound sadness in the face of these disasters.

We join the world in calling on the Administration of the United States government to revise upward its disgracefully small contribution to the worldwide relief effort in Asia, to sincerely extend the sympathies of the American people with appropriate and meaningful generosity.

Additional Links:

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883 is published by Harper Collins Publishers and is available from HarperAudio and as an e-book from PerfectBound.

Find more about Simon Winchester and his many books at his website.

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