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Reviews: March 2001

The hottest science books, movies and toys for March 2001.

Mar 1, 2001 6:00 AMMay 9, 2023 7:19 PM


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The scene: A steaming volcano in the Andes. After 15 men on a research expedition descend into the caldera, flaming shards shoot into the sky. Six scientists die almost instantly in the blast. Glowing rocks set the team leader's clothes on fire, batter his skull, and nearly shear off his right foot. Two horrified female scientists rush from the volcano's flanks and daringly descend into the inferno to rescue survivors. In the aftermath, there are muted rumors that the team should never have been on the mountain.

The 1993 eruption of Colombia's Galeras volcano was a disaster, and just the sort of event that spells dollars to publishers. With the public snapping up books about climbers stranded on Mt. Everest and sailors lost in a ferocious Atlantic storm, could a tale of scientists blown apart by an Andean volcano be anything but a surefire hit? After all, there's danger, heroism, pathos, even the whiff of controversy; the only thing missing is sex. Publishers will soon find out if the story is strong enough to sell. Flooding shelves within weeks will be two new works boasting big advances and huge publicity campaigns: expedition leader Stanley Williams's first-person account of his not-so-excellent adventure, Surviving Galeras (Houghton Mifflin, $25), and science journalist Victoria Bruce's gimlet-eyed reconstruction of events, No Apparent Danger: The True Story of Volcanic Disaster at Galeras and Nevado del Ruiz (HarperCollins, $26).

Harrowing and riveting are words beloved by publishers, and both tales live up to the billing, at least in the sections where rocks are flying. But the picture some people get will not be pretty. For while Williams portrays scientists as inspired by a mix of public service, smarts, and bravado, Bruce depicts them as driven by ignorance, infighting, and ego.

Williams, a professor of geology at Arizona State University, has worked fearlessly on dozens of restless mountains on five continents for two decades. Galeras is one of the most active— and potentially dangerous— volcanoes around. Part of a string of active mountains running along South America's Andean spine, it is one of 15 singled out for intensive study by the United Nations, which has been trying to reduce the deaths and devastation that follow natural disasters. On the morning of January 14, 1993, while helping to run an international conference in Pasto, Colombia, on the threat posed by Galeras, Williams led 14 colleagues on a field trip into the mile-wide caldera; only two of the men wore hard hats. The scientists canvassed the area, checked gas emissions, and took microgravity readings. About four hours later, with some scientists directly inside the mouth of the volcano, it exploded.

Aided by writer Fen Montaigne, a former outdoors columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Williams re-creates the agonizing moments of the blast with pulse-pounding urgency, but the forward surge of a classic narrative is continually interrupted by jump cuts. One minute we're with Williams as the volcano opens with an explosive crack; the next we're jerked back to ancient Rome to ponder Vesuvius with Pliny the Elder. Appearing throughout are gratingly flattering profiles of Williams's fellow scientists. Williams himself emerges as a fiercely ambitious, hard-driving scientist with, in his words, a "not inconsiderable ego." He treats us to a blow-by-blow account of his life, which in the aftermath of Galeras included 17 operations to mend his smashed body, marital problems, a slowed career, and the confusion and depression that come in the wake of a head injury.

Bruce, a former science writer for NASA with a master's degree in geological sciences, charges that Williams wouldn't have been in danger had he paid more attention to distinctive seismographic patterns that had been showing up for weeks indicating that Galeras was poised to blow. The graphs are called tornillos for the screwlike shape they make on recordings, reflecting rapid pressure changes in volcanic fluid. Geophysicist Bernard Chouet of the United States Geological Survey, who pioneered the study of these markings, had used them to forecast a 1990 eruption of Alaska's Mt. Redoubt in time to evacuate workers from an oil terminal in Cook Inlet. In late 1991, Chouet reported that tornillos could presage an eruption at Galeras— and they did, for a major blowout that occurred in the following July.

Tornillos picked up again in frequency in late December 1992 and continued into January. Alarmed Colombian seismologists alerted Williams and other conference organizers at a meeting the night before the field trip into the volcano, says Bruce. "That information— that the volcano could be dangerous— was not passed on to anyone who went into the crater the next morning," she declares. She adds that shortly after the scientists arrived at Galeras, seismologists in Pasto radioed them that seismographs were recording yet another tornillo.

Williams, 48, is quick to point out that he is not a seismologist but a chemist who studies volcanic gases. In both his book and an interview, he insists that the mountain was quiet and that clear signs of serious seismic activity were absent: "We did not see any special number of earthquakes or changes or intensity or anything like that that was something to worry about." He acknowledges receiving word of a tornillo while in the crater but says he didn't fully understand its significance. He says he was unfamiliar with Chouet's work.

Williams says that Bruce, a striking 34-year-old he refers to as "this blond babe," lacks credentials. "It's a real puzzle because she doesn't know anything about volcanoes," he charges. "It's so hard to imagine her seeing anything vaguely like it is." For her part, Bruce describes Williams as "a notorious maverick who seemed to be constantly at odds with whatever the scientific consensus was." "He's based his whole career on predicting eruptions through gas analysis," she says, "but it's an unreliable method. What's important is the seismic data, and that was well established by 1993. You'd have to be totally ignorant or an idiot not to have known the relevance of tornillos."

Although Bruce has amassed a wealth of circumstantial evidence to buttress her case, she has not produced a smoking gun, which may win Williams some sympathy. Even so, her book offers rich insight into the untidy workings of volcanology and science in general. Bruce's main draw is the Galeras explosion, but nearly half her book is devoted to a far greater calamity: the 1985 eruption of another Colombian volcano, Nevado del Ruiz, which killed more than 20,000 people living in the nearby city of Armero. She presents Ruiz as a tragedy of errors: Good seismographs were scarce, scientists squared off into factions, and government officials ignored United Nations safety recommendations. In the end, 100-foot-tall walls of mud barreled down two rivers and swamped Armero in darkness and death.

The now-all-but-forgotten catastrophe of Nevado del Ruiz sparked a new zeal among scientists. Seismologists, geologists, gas chemists, and geophysicists arrived at Galeras determined to forge new alliances to better monitor and predict the Earth's mighty shudderings. Still, something went wrong. "Scientists are fallible," says Bruce. "Mistakes were made that need not be repeated."

Eric Sorensen is the science writer for the Seattle Times.


The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist Frans de Waal Basic Books, $26.

Chimpanzees are a lot like sushi chefs when it comes to passing down group culture, argues Dutch-born primatologist de Waal. Both employ what de Waal terms BIOL (short for Bonding- and Identification-based Observational Learning), or learning impelled by a desire to conform to the behavior of peers or elders. An apprentice chef will follow a sushi master around a kitchen for three years before attempting to assemble a dish. Similarly, a young chimp observes adults using stones to smash nuts for years before cracking a nut. Impatient juniors in both groups sometimes jump the gun, of course, but mostly it's a case of youngsters aping their elders. Eric Powell

2001: Building for Space Travel edited by John Zukovsky Abrams, $39.95.

Sending humans off into the cosmos is getting a bigger boost these days from publishers than from NASA. The lavishly illustrated 2001 celebrates the science of space travel and its impact on popular culture. Based on a museum exhibit put together by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Flight in Seattle, the book highlights the role of neglected visual professionals— architects, civil engineers, industrial and graphic designers— in shaping vehicles like Mir and the space shuttle. More fun, though, are the early, fanciful depictions of space travel as seen in movies and on book covers, road maps, even lunch boxes (check out Wernher von Braun's gorgeous 1958 design of a multistage spacecraft hurtling toward a rotating-wheel space station).

For detailed descriptions and technical renderings of real and proposed spacecraft, including the International Space Station, turn to Richard Wagner and Howard Cook's Designs on Space: Blueprints for 21st Century Space Exploration, (Simon and Schuster, $24). Seeing tourist shuttle schemata will convince you it won't be long before you'll be going into orbit yourself. Eric Powell

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Astronomer Kaler gives a whirlwind tour of the universe replete with diagrams and stellar images, while fellow astronomer Odenwald homes in on our sun and its "talent for raising havoc," such as solar storms interfering with high-tech communications.

The Imitation Factor: Evolution Beyond the Gene Lee Alan Dugatkin The Free Press, $25

Biologist Dugatkin probes the copycat behavior of animals from guppies to blackbirds and concludes that imitation is the driving force behind cultural evolution.

How the Web Was Born James Gillies and Robert Cailliau Oxford University Press, $15.95.

CERN physicist Gillies and computer scientist Cailliau deliver a jargon-free insider's account of how today's Web emerged from a particle-physics laboratory outside Geneva.

Adventures in the Bone Trade: The Race to Discover Human Ancestors in Ethiopia's Afar Depression Jon Kalb Copernicus Books, $29.

Geologist-paleontologist Kalb blends 19th-century-style travelogue and up-to-date science in a lively memoir of his work in a fossil-rich region of Africa.

The Universe Unveiled: Instruments and Images through History Bruce Stephenson, Marvin Bolt, Anna Felicity Friedman Cambridge University Press, $29.95. A gloriously illustrated treasury of historical astronomical instruments, celestial maps and globes, and engravings, assembled by staffers of Chicago's Adler Planetarium.

The Neptune File: A Story of Astronomical Rivalry and the Pioneers of Planet Hunting Tom Standage Walker Books, $24.

Tupai: A Field Study of Bornean Treeshrews ornean Treeshrews Louise H. Emmons University of California Press, $19.95.

Drawing on her years of research, field biologist Emmons paints an animated portrait of treeshrews, squirrel-sized creatures that are thought to closely resemble Earth's earliest mammals. Compiled by Eric Powell


Buzzed about Bugs St. Louis's gleaming new Insectarium gives lowly invertebrates some respect

By Martha K. Baker

PITY THE BUGS. THEY MAY BE THE most prevalent creatures on Earth, but zoos rarely give them much respect or space. Not so at the St. Louis Zoo. Ten months ago, keepers opened the gleaming new $4 million, 9,000-square-foot Monsanto Insectarium, which finally gives bugs their due. "These are our unsung heroes," declares Jane Stevens, curator of invertebrates. "We cannot live without them."

The Insectarium (www.stlzoo.org) sings their praises in an engaging and amusing fashion. Visitors are greeted outside the building by an eight-foot-long steel sculpture of a Centaurus beetle, a reminder that if every species of animal were lined up, every fourth one would be a different type of beetle. Once inside, guests wend their way through 20 discovery zones featuring more than 100 live insect species, including the death-feigning beetle, the African trap-door spider, the giant cockroach, and the orchid mantis.

A good place to start is an exhibit called Am I An Insect?, which challenges viewers to judge whether a centipede, a tarantula, and a banana slug fit the classic definition— possessing an exoskeleton, three distinct body segments (head, thorax, abdomen), and three pairs of legs. They don't, of course. A centipede has way too many legs, a tarantula only two body segments, and the slug just one body segment and no legs. In Not Home Alone, visitors wander through a fully fitted kitchen, lifting lids and opening drawers and cabinets to find all the places insects can reside. Open the refrigerator door and discover cockroaches scurrying away from the light; peer behind a curtain (in bug-printed fabric, of course), and find flies walking on the window. At Dune Buggies, visitors are encouraged to touch rocks to feel the extreme daytime heat endured by desert-dwelling scorpions and longhorn beetles and to put their hands into a burrow to experience the cold of night. Other exhibits explore the spectacular aerodynamic engineering that allows some insects to fly and the jazzy light patterns that different species of firefly flash to seek out mates.

Any doubts about the value of the ubiquitous creatures are dispelled in Who Needs Insects? For example, earthworms, dung beetles, and maggots expertly scavenge and recycle matter. "Silkworms are our only source of silk, and leeches are back— their saliva is used to thin our blood," notes curator Stevens, whose motto is "If it doesn't have a spine, it's mine." A working beehive, housed in a life-sized simulated tree, shows the life cycle of the insects that pollinate $10 billion of crops annually. Friendly zookeepers clad in white coats— the better to detect tiny invertebrates trying to hitch a ride to the outside— willingly answer any and all questions. (A sign identifies the invertebrate zookeepers as spined creatures often found near chocolate.)

Leaving the exhibit area, visitors enter the Butterfly Wing, a glass geodesic dome filled with lush plants, tropical flowers, and multitudes of varicolored butterflies, green-and-blue dragonflies, katydids, and water striders. Their soft fluttering and humming seem to celebrate visitors' newfound respect for nature's overlooked marvels.

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