Melting the Earth: The History of Ideas on Volcanic Eruptions

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9780195106657: Melting the Earth: The History of Ideas on Volcanic Eruptions

From prehistoric times to the fiery destruction of Pompeii in 79 A.D. and the more recent pyrotechnics of Mt. St. Helens, volcanic eruptions have aroused fear, inspired myths and religious worship, and prompted heated philosophical and scientific debate. Melting the Earth chronicles humankind's attempt to understand this terrifying phenomenon and provides a fascinating look at how our conception of volcanoes has changed as knowledge of the earth's internal processes has deepened over the centuries.
A practicing volcanologist and native of Iceland, where volcanoes are frequently active, Haraldur Sigurdsson considers how philosophers and scientists have attempted to answer the question: Why do volcanoes erupt? He takes us through the ideas of the ancient Greeks--who proposed that volcanoes resulted from the venting of subterranean winds--and the internal combustion theories of Roman times, and notes how thinking about volcanoes took a backward, symbolic turn with the rise of Christian conceptions of Hell, a direction that would not be reversed until the Renaissance. He chronicles the 18th-century conflict between the Neptunists, who believed that volcanic rocks originated from oceanic accretions, and the Plutonists, who argued for the existence of a molten planetary core, and traces how volcanology moved from "divine science" and "armchair geology" to empirical field study with the rise of 19th-century naturalism. Finally, Sigurdsson describes how 19th and 20th-century research in thermodynamics, petrology, geochemistry and plate tectonics contribute to the current understanding of volcanic activity.
Drawing liberally from classical sources and firsthand accounts, this chronicle is not only a colorful history of volcanology, but an engrossing chapter in the development of scientific thought.

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From the Author:

I hope that the reader will enjoy reading this book half as much as I have enjoyed researching the subject and writing about it. I began serious work on this book in 1990, although the basic idea and the preliminary notes go back even further. I think that the general reader will be very surprised to find out that rocks in the Earth do not melt to create magma by addition of heat, but simply by decrease of pressure! It is the first book that explains WHY volcanoes erupt. All earlier books on volcanoes have followed the traditional path of DESCRIBING eruptions and their products, which has been the main preoccupation of volcanologists. This book goes directly to the basic question about the ultimate causes of volcanic eruptions and the process which generates molten rock, i.e. red-hot magma

From the Back Cover:

Several legends about the origin of fire attribute it to a volcanic source or a place deep in the Earth. In the fire myth of the Polynesian people of the Tonga Islands, the great primeval hero Maui resides deep in the netherworld and is the keeper of fire. Maui, the legend goes, sleeps in a deep cave and, when he turns while dreaming, and earthquake occurs on the land above. In the Samoan Islands dwelt the earthquake god Mafuie, who tended eternally burning fires in fiery subterranean ovens. Mafuie was said to blow into the oven, scattering hot stones and cinders about - a vivid evocation of a volcanic eruption .... Throughout the ages people have struggled with the puzzle" Why do volcanoes erupt? Underlying this is an even more fundamental question and a central theme of this book: What causes the Earth's rocks to melt?

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Haraldur Sigurdsson
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