When the Earth Flexes Its Muscles

Simon Winchester, the author of Krakatoa, talks about the natural and cultural reverberations of a famous volcanic eruption

Simon Winchester: Krakatoa

Krakatoa : The Day the World Exploded
[Click the title
to buy this book] by Simon Winchester
432 pages, $25.95

On August 27, 1883, the volcanic island of Krakatoa, located between Java and Sumatra in the archipelago that is now Indonesia, erupted catastrophically. The explosion destroyed most of the island, made a sound that was audible from 3,000 miles away, produced tsunamis that killed thousands of people near the volcano and raised water levels as far away as France, and sent so much debris into the atmosphere that fiery sunsets were seen all over the world for the next year. The eruption of Krakatoa was also one of the first major events in the colonial world to be reported back to Europe by way of newly laid undersea telegraph cables, and so became an early symbol of the global scope of information and interdependence that would come to characterize the modern era.

The subject of intense interest in its own time, Krakatoa has continued to inspire scientific inquiry. Simon Winchester, a journalist trained as a geologist, became fascinated by Krakatoa during a recent visit to Indonesia, his second in twenty-five years. Looking off Java's shore at Anak Krakatoa, the island that had appeared in Krakatoa's place some fifty years after the volcano exploded into nothing, he noticed that it was significantly larger than it had been on his last visit; that it was, in fact, growing rapidly. Intrigued by this unusually visible tectonic activity, he decided to find out more about the volcano and to write about it, bringing to bear both his geological knowledge and his interest in human culture.

From the archives:

"The Volcanic Eruption of Krakatoa" (September 1884)
"High waves first retreated, and then rolled upon both sides of the strait. During a night of pitchy darkness these horrors continued with increasing violence, augmented at midnight by electrical phenomena on a terrifying scale" By E. W. Sturdy

"The Red Sunsets" (April 1884)
"When this volcanic dust ceases to glorify our skies at dawn and eve, we shall part with what has probably been the most remarkable and picturesque accident to the earth's physical life that has been known with the limits of recorded history." By N. S. Shaler

The result is Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded—a work that weaves natural, cultural, and political elements of the volcano's story into a multifaceted whole. Winchester recounts the development of plate tectonics and modern geology through the stories of scientists who explored the world's remote corners and found evidence for the controversial idea that the continents move around on the surface of the earth, causing earthquakes, volcanoes, and other disturbances where the landmasses push together or pull apart. He also evokes the Dutch colonial culture on Java, chronicling such idiosyncrasies as a fad for refrigerated meat imported from Australia, and such intriguing details as the story of a popular circus elephant whose skittishness just before the eruption may have been caused by an awareness of the tectonic activity underfoot. And he describes the scientific inquiry into the eruption that was enthusiastically undertaken by Britain's Royal Society of scientists, and by eager Victorians who observed and recorded changes in atmospheric pressure using amateur meteorological instruments. Throughout the book Winchester makes the case that the eruption of Krakatoa was much more than a dramatic disaster on a remote island; it also became a cultural touchstone and was reported on around the world, including in The Atlantic Monthly.

Simon Winchester is the author of many books, including the bestselling The Professor and the Madman and The Map That Changed the World. His next book, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, will be published in October. We spoke recently by telephone.

—Sarah Cohen

Many critics have commented on Krakatoa's breadth, the way the book uses so many different kinds of details to tell the story of the volcano. This seems to contradict the conventional wisdom that the attention span of the modern reader is practically nonexistent. Did anything in particular encourage you to have faith that readers would enjoy this approach?

Simon Winchester
Simon Winchester   

Well, I did not want this to be a standard disaster book. Just the other day I met a chap who wrote a book on the 1902 explosion of Mont Pelée. That is a standard volcano story—a big bang, lots of people die, end of story. I have always thought, I'm afraid, that that's a rather dull and conventional way to write a book about a great natural event. The context of the event and its repercussions are often more fascinating than the event itself, which tends to have a certain predictability. In the case of Krakatoa the eruption was horrendous, so it was well worth describing in detail. But I found the context absolutely fascinating, and that's what drew me to the subject in the first place. My aim in writing the book was to offer that context to readers, and to hope that they wouldn't find it tedious. Thanks be, they seem to agree with me by and large. The first review of the book I saw said that it was full of tiresome and irrelevant digressions, and I thought, Oh, my God, they're not going to like it. But eventually they did.

The next book I'm doing is on the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and once again it's context I'm most interested in. I'm beginning my research in 1818, not in 1905, because I really want to try and build up a picture of what was going on in San Francisco, much as I tried to do with Java.

As you were writing Krakatoa, did you have a sense of who the book's audience would be?

I've come to accept who my readers turn out to be, rather than having some sort of demographic target. I don't think I'd ever be quite so cynical as to say "This is a book for fifty-two-year-old white, suburban-dwelling owners of four cars," or anything like that. I spent long enough at Condé Nast Traveler to be utterly appalled by the whole idea of focus groups and that kind of thing. When I give readings, I have noticed that the people who come and listen are generally late-middle-aged, to put it at its most generous. There tends to be a sea of gray out there. And I'm very happy that that's the case: I am fifty-eight, and I'm talking to people who are my age or older. I'm not going to win over very many of the people who read Nick Hornby and "chick lit." I facetiously refer to that demographic as the tectonically lost generation. I did have an e-mail this morning, though, from a young woman in Calgary who was fascinated by the book, mainly because her father, a geologist, said, "Susan, you've got to read this book." And she liked it, so maybe all hope is not quite lost.

I wonder if the book will be used in the classroom?

It's funny you should say that, because I recently heard from John Dewey, who is a very important figure in tectonic plate theory. He used to be a professor of geology at Oxford, and now he teaches at U.C. Davis. I know him quite well, and I had sent him the chapter explaining plate tectonics for his review, because I didn't want to create all sorts of howlers and have the geological community jumping down my throat. He wrote back and said that not only did he think it was absolutely fine—in other words, I passed, sigh of relief—but that he wanted to use it in his classes as a primer on plate tectonics. The Map That Changed the World has now become a standard text in history of geology classes, and it may well be that this will become one too. That would completely delight me. Business Week once ran a story that said, "Simon Winchester, the man who brings dull things to life," and I thought, Wow. Well, there's nothing wrong in doing that.

Krakatoa is built on accounts written around the time of the eruption. Was it a challenge to try to tell a good story while also remaining faithful to the primary sources?

It is a challenge. You have to be guided by a desire to be fair—to produce an accurate evocation of what happened. I put advertisements in the Dutch newspapers for people who had letters or diaries or reminiscences about the event, and I got quite a number of them. With the help of a young woman at the University of Lyden in Holland named Alicia Schrikker, I translated them and picked out the most interesting ones. There were also a lot of eyewitness accounts in the Dutch archives, and various other books.

You choose the best ones, the ones that most accurately illustrate the picture you're trying to build up. Inevitably you have to weave them together in a narrative way, and that has the potential for grave irresponsibility—you could just get carried away and make up something that is so fanciful that it verges on fiction. In The Professor and the Madman there were scenes where I was very keenly aware that I didn't know the facts, and that there were no extant documents that could provide them. But I could speculate, as long as I signaled to the reader that what I was describing almost certainly had happened—and probably in this or that particular way. When I have to do that, I try to bend over backward to signal to the reader that what I'm writing is not documented fact, but informed speculation. Perhaps I'm not always successful, but I'm very much aware that I'm writing non-fiction. It's a tricky thing to do. It can be tempting to let rip and to try to turn it into a wonderful wham-bam kind of story, full of non-stop excitement. But one must avoid that, I think, because otherwise you lose credibility with the reader.

One of the chapter epigraphs quotes a character in a short story witnessing the eruption and thinking that he "would give all these people's lives once more to see something so beautiful again." As a reader of this book, I had a similar guilty experience of taking pleasure in the story of a catastrophe. Have you felt that in the process of writing and publicizing the book?

I love the aphorism from Will Durant, which I quoted in the book, that "man exists on earth subject to geological consent, which can be withdrawn at any time." I think that is a sort of guiding mantra for the book. When the earth flexes its muscles and reminds us how puny and insignificant we are, then to me, as a former geologist (not a very good geologist, but nonetheless as someone who knows and adores the science), that is not just awesome but it has a sort of beauty to it, no matter how destructive the event might be. So I do get caught up in it; I do find it seductively beautiful, and I have to rein myself in and remind myself that we are human beings and these are terrible personal tragedies.

It's a very interesting dynamic—admiring the beauty of it, but being appalled by the destructiveness. But it's not plain voyeurism. Having been in the newspaper business for a long, long time, I often wonder, Why do we actually need to know about something like a bus crash in Bangladesh that has no effect on us at all? That can be nothing other than voyeurism. We kid ourselves that we're trying to be empathetic with the human condition from a distance, but I don't think that is it at all. It's stupid; it's a waste of time. But when the earth flexes its muscles, that's rather different. That's a powerful reminder of where we are.

Do you have your eye on any particular volcanoes that might erupt in the near future?

Not in the near future, no, because I'm so enthralled by what's going to happen to Yellowstone in the distant future. That is going to be the granddaddy of all volcanoes. When that blows its top—which may be as far away as a quarter of a million years—essentially all of the western United States will disappear, and that will make Krakatoa look like a pop gun.

In the short-term, though, the other big boys—and I say boys because generally speaking the Indonesians regard their volcanoes as male—the other major volcanoes in Sumatra and Java, Merapi and Merbabu, are very badly behaved. And then there's Mayon, in the Philippines. One of the weird things is that no matter how dangerous volcanoes are, people come back and live on them, because once the rocks that they're made of weather they produce lots and lots of very fertile soils. So Mayon, which I've climbed a couple of times and which is one of the most classic and beautiful conical volcanoes in the world, is also terribly dangerous. It erupts essentially without any warning every five or six years. People come back to live on its flanks and they get seared to death by these great clouds of hot ash that come down the hillside.

Is there any surveillance technique that can predict eruptions?

In this country, there is the U.S. Geological Survey which, to my way of thinking, is one of the most delightful but unsung parts of the U.S. government. It's a wonderful organization, full of highly dedicated geologists, and they work on earthquake prediction, which is very primitive at the moment, and volcano prediction, which is quite sophisticated. Its sophistication was first evident at the Mount St. Helens eruption. They were aware as early as November of 1979 that the northeast face was changing its shape, so they put a lot of strain meters on it, and found that, indeed, it was changing its face quite rapidly and dangerously. They got Dixy Lee Ray, who was the governor of Washington, to declare it an exclusion zone, and then it erupted on May 18, 1980.

Well, that was twenty-three years ago, before global positioning satellites were used. Now you can use not just strain meters, but GPS equipment, which shows microscopic changes in the shape of a mountain. And with a lot of American volcanoes they've already put them into use, so there's adequate warning for almost every one—Mount Hood, Mount Olympia, all the big boys. But in developing countries it's not so easy. Krakatoa is now littered with meters and things, but it's not likely to blow up anyway, because it's letting off steam all the time. Volcanoes like Mayon, Tambora (on Indonesia's Sumbawa Island), Merapi, and Merbabu don't have surveillance equipment. But they could, because GPS equipment is so cheap.

Is progress being made in earthquake prediction as well?

That's a little more difficult. What happens in a volcano is largely at the surface, (even though it originates deep down), so its warning manifestations are at the surface too—changes of shape and that sort of thing—and are easier to monitor. The kinds of stresses and strains that build up in faults like the lateral fault of the San Andreas—what are called strike-slip faults—are invisible. They're a long way below the surface of the earth, so whatever is happening is very much more difficult to predict. Earthquake prediction is much more frequently written about, because earthquakes are so damnably unpredictable, as we've just seen recently in Algeria. People are always saying, "When are you going to come up with a plan?" Well, believe you me, the USGS and others are working terribly hard on it, but it's much easier with volcanoes than with earthquakes.

Do you think that awareness of natural disasters has an influence on the political debate about the environment?

You mean does it stimulate interest in the natural world and make people take more care? I'd like to think so, but I'm not sure. I recently went to a conference in Salt Lake City, held by the American Association for Petroleum Geologists. It will sound very ungenerous of me to say this, because I was actually being given a nice award for The Map That Changed the World by this organization. I was there with my fiancée, and we were both appalled by the keynote speaker, the president of the AAPG, who was saying that all this talk about alternative sources of energy is nonsense: "We don't need to conserve anything, the only energy that we need—and by gosh we need it—is hydrocarbons. And the program is drill, drill, drill, we've just got to drill in Alaska, we've got to drill in every protected area."

I think there are essentially two types of geologists. The people who study soft rocks with a view to winning things like oil and gas from them are generally not on the side of the angels. They want to get at that stuff and exploit it. The people who study geology for the sheer joy of it, on the other hand, are largely hard rock geologists, and they're very much on the side of the angels. They look at the earth's structure and its volcanoes and its earthquakes, and regard geology as a pure science. They are the most delightful people. When they look at the earth's movements, even the ones that cause disaster, they see that these things are beautiful—that they have a nobility about them, which reminds one of the nobility of the earth. They are keen environmentalists. It's an interesting schism, which I've only realized while talking to my fiancée about the conference, and then hearing your question. It's something that I'd love to write an essay about, because I think it's quite fascinating.

In the chapter of the book that explains the science behind volcanic eruptions, you describe the development of the science of plate tectonics as being entwined with the development of the theory of evolution. I was wondering if you felt that with this section that you were entering into the political debate about evolution versus creationism?

I did. I continue to wave the flag for evolution against these morons who believe in creation science. I make no apology for thinking that the creation science mob is utterly ludicrous. I first encountered them in The Map That Changed the World. That book is about a man named William Smith who essentially created the science of stratigraphy, and who was the first to draw a geological map, going up against people who believed that the earth was created in seven days—that it was divinely done and how dare this new science of geology come along and upset the apple cart. I can't exactly remember the statistics, but only something like two percent of the European public now believe that the earth was divinely created within the last ten thousand years, whereas something like sixty percent of Americans believe that; including, I suspect, a gigantic proportion of the people who are in the White House today. Creation science is big here, and getting bigger all the time—Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas are all restricting the education of children in evolutionary science. It's dangerous. And so if I have a chance to wave the flag for evolution then I do. That was not the purpose of the book, but when I got into the chapter about the history of geology and started discussing the discoveries of scientists like Wegener, Wallace, and Darwin, I was jolly well going to remind everybody of the good sense of it.

The stories of the scientists you describe make the process of their discoveries sound very romantic—full of risk and travel and inspiration. Do you think that there's a place for this kind of work in science today?

No, I don't think there's a place for such people in the way science works now, and I regret it. I think it's so sad. How much more romantic a person could there be than Alfred Russel Wallace? With the single exception of him hunting birds of paradise, which was excessive even within his scientific technique of capturing and studying specimens, his life was totally devoted to a wonderfully wide-eyed, amateur, joyous, relentless searching for knowledge.

My fiancée is both Chinese and left-wing, and she rightly derides the fact that I enjoy writing about the achievements of dead white men so much. And I say, "Well, damn it, I'm jolly well going to write a book called In Praise of Dead White Men." Because people like Alfred Russel Wallace were wonderful, and the world needs to be reminded of how wonderful they were.

Would you ever write a book about him?

I'm not planning a book about Wallace, because oddly enough there have been two books about him—biographies—that came out last year. So he has now got his due, I think, as a co-inventor of evolutionary theory. You'll never erase the word Darwinism from the lexicon, but people who know the story of Darwin's and Wallace's near-simultaneous inspirations—and there are an increasing number of those people now—accept that the ideas of survival of the fittest and the origin of species were the work of two people, not one.

As I was reading the book, I was struck by the energy and ambition of the British scientific and academic culture at the time of the eruption. Is this something that particularly interested you?

Well, as an Englishman, with what I might call residual chauvinism, I found it both shocking and yet really rather charming that the Royal Society decided to arrogate to itself the responsibility for the investigation: "We'll take over, we'll investigate this volcano, no matter that it's not on British territory, no matter that we in London are 8,000 miles away from where it happened. We're the masters of this particular universe. Step aside, boys, we'll do it." How impossibly arrogant. And yet, what a magnificent document they produced. It was just wonderful, this report. And so my feeling about it is a mixture of shame and toe-curling embarrassment, with no small component of pride. The British empire—yes, I know it was a bad idea, I know it's no longer fashionable, I know we mustn't be sentimental about it, but of all the empires that existed, ours was not so bad. A damn sight less bad than the Dutch, that's for sure. So I know I should be appalled, but I'm not.

Some of the details seem very intriguing, like the many amateur meteorologists in England whose barographs happened to record the atmospheric shock waves caused by the eruption.

Yes, exactly. It's lovely. I have a barograph myself. Every Sunday morning I change my barograph paper, and I look back on the week. Although I didn't say so in the book, that section stems very much from my personal Sunday morning experience. I had always wanted a barograph, and my parents knew that I did and gave me one. When I came to that particular chapter, it had a nice sort of resonance for me. The barograph became popular at almost precisely the time of Krakatoa's eruption, and it turned thousands of middle class British men—not so many women, because it's a very boyish toy—into amateur meteorologists. You have to be a real nerd like me to want to have a barograph in your house, but I like things made of brass and glass and mahogany. I should have been a Victorian, I think.

The book mentions "the Krakatoa community," and I was wondering what this group of people is like. Is it mostly scientists, or is it more diverse?

There was a big conference in Jakarta in 1983, the centenary of the event, and the people there tended to be mostly scientists. But the more I looked into the story of the eruption, the more I saw that it had so many ramifications that if there's ever a conference again, let's say at the hundred and fiftieth anniversary, the community will probably have expanded to include not merely botanists and submarine biologists and geologists and vulcanologists, but also communications scientists and people who are interested in social change. The community of people who are fascinated by the event is huge and very, very disparate—much more disparate than, say, those that were interested in the Mont Pelée volcano in Martinique. That was a simple, horrific disaster without worldwide ramifications, but Krakatoa had a global impact, and continues to fascinate the scientific community today.

During the public events for this book have you encountered people who are part of the community but who have no academic interest?

Absolutely. I was in the Brazos bookstore in Houston about a month ago, and an elderly man came up to me. He could barely walk; he was helped there by his wife. And he said that for all of his life he had been fascinated by Krakatoa because his father had been on a U.S. cargo ship passing through the Sunda Strait at the time of the eruption. His father had painted a watercolor, which the man had kept and had brought to the store. It was a very affecting moment, watching these old, shaky hands opening a bag and pulling out a beautiful watercolor of the immediate aftermath of the eruption. Part of me thought, Why didn't I know about this a year ago? The man's eyes were shining—at last he could talk with someone who was interested in his father's experience. And so he showed it to everyone, and everyone crowded around and asked him questions about his father. It was lovely. So that's another thing about doing books like this; you tap into a lot of personal memories. I think the same thing is going to happen with the San Francisco book. There are, of course, survivors of the San Francisco earthquake, and they meet every April 18. There are not many left—one died the other day at age 109, I think.

Are you soliciting people's records of the San Francisco earthquake the way you did with Dutch accounts of Krakatoa?

Exactly. A lot of people, particularly when I was on the West Coast, offered their help with the San Francisco book, and told me that they have letters or photographs at home. I haven't begun the formal process yet, because I'm still on this tour, but I will, and I hope I'll have much the same response. The big challenge is writing a book that's not structurally just like the Krakatoa book with the names changed. It's got to be a very, very different approach.

Krakatoa is structured around the volcano as sort of a main character—I know it's been described that way in some reviews—but I was wondering if you were particularly attached to any of the human characters.

Yes, there's this wonderful man Rogier Verbeek, a Dutchman, and the first scientist to visit what remained of Krakatoa after the eruption. Despite what I said about the British elbowing everyone aside and saying, "We'll investigate it," he was wonderful. He was heroic, and he wrote an amazingly long report on the volcano, many of whose conclusions absolutely stand up today. So I think he would be my all-time favorite. But I also love the little spider; I'm very fond of the spider spinning its web on the island after the eruption, hoping to catch a fly—optimistic little beast.

I also liked the episode that ends the book, when you visit Krakatoa and a giant monitor lizard steals your sandwich.

Yes, well; I didn't like it much. I'm glad he preferred the sandwich to me. But I blessed him for making an ending to the book. I also blessed Bernard Kowalski for having made that dreadful film, Krakatoa, East of Java. I bless him for having done it, because it gave me an easy introduction for talking about the volcano, by saying something like, "This was a dreadful film, not least because Krakatoa is west of Java, and that's where I want to begin this talk." And then I can finish it with the lizard. Because every lizard has a silver lining.