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Good Reads  Earth System Sciences  Geosphere  Volcanology

Super Volcanoes What They Reveal about Earth and the Worlds Beyond

Popular Science
By: Robin George Andrews(Author)
312 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
A deeply informed piece of popular science
Super Volcanoes
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  • Super Volcanoes ISBN: 9781324035916 Paperback Jan 2023 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • Super Volcanoes ISBN: 9780393542066 Hardback Nov 2021 In stock
Selected version: £19.99
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About this book

An exhilarating, time-traveling journey to the solar system's strangest and most awe-inspiring volcanoes.

Volcanoes are capable of acts of pyrotechnical prowess verging on magic: they spout black magma more fluid than water, create shimmering cities of glass at the bottom of the ocean and frozen lakes of lava on the moon, and can even tip entire planets over. Between lava that melts and re-forms the landscape, and noxious volcanic gases that poison the atmosphere, volcanoes have threatened life on Earth countless times in our planet's history. Yet despite their reputation for destruction, volcanoes are inseparable from the creation of our planet.

A lively and utterly fascinating guide to these geologic wonders, Super Volcanoes revels in the incomparable power of volcanic eruptions past and present, Earthbound and otherwise – and recounts the daring and sometimes death-defying careers of the scientists who study them. Science journalist and volcanologist Robin George Andrews explores how these eruptions reveal secrets about the worlds to which they belong, describing the stunning ways in which volcanoes can sculpt the sea, land, and sky, and even influence the machinery that makes or breaks the existence of life.

Walking us through the mechanics of some of the most infamous eruptions on Earth, Andrews outlines what we know about how volcanoes form, erupt, and evolve, as well as what scientists are still trying to puzzle out. How can we better predict when a deadly eruption will occur – and protect communities in the danger zone? Is Earth's system of plate tectonics, unique in the solar system, the best way to forge a planet that supports life? And if life can survive and even thrive in Earth's extreme volcanic environments – superhot, superacidic, and supersaline surroundings previously thought to be completely inhospitable – where else in the universe might we find it?

Traveling from Hawai'i, Yellowstone, Tanzania, and the ocean floor to the moon, Venus, and Mars, Andrews illuminates the cutting-edge discoveries and lingering scientific mysteries surrounding these phenomenal forces of nature.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Unabashedly enthusiastic
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 24 Mar 2022 Written for Hardback

    If volcanoes make you giddy, then this is the book for you. Robin George Andrews is that rare hybrid of the scientist-journalist: a volcanologist who decided to focus on science communication after completing his PhD. Super Volcanoes combines scientific exactitude with engaging writing and is a tour of some exceptional volcanoes on Earth and elsewhere in the Solar System. Andrews starts it with an unabashedly enthusiastic mission statement: "I want you to feel unbridled glee as these stories sink in and an indelible grin flashes across your face as you think: holy crap, that's crazy!" (p. xxi). For me, he nailed it and I found this an incredibly satisfying read.

    Super Volcanoes breaks down into two parts. The first four chapters cover volcanoes on Earth, including Hawaii, Yellowstone National Park, the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano in Tanzania, and underwater volcanoes and hydrothermal vents. The last four chapters go off-world to our Moon, Mars, Venus, and moons such as Io and Enceladus.

    In several chapters, Andrews delves into the history of his discipline. He introduces Harvard geologist Thomas Jaggar (1871–1953) who dedicated his research to better understanding volcanoes after investigating the aftermath of the destructive 1902 Mount Pelée eruption. He founded the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory that to this day does important work and features prominently in Andrews's lively reporting on the 2018 Kīlauea eruption. And then there is Marie Tharp (1920–2006) who identified the mid-Atlantic ridge when collating oceanic depth readings obtained by the US Navy. Initially, she was belittled by her supervisor for "girl talk" that might support the then-still controversial idea of continental drift. However, when another student mapped seaquakes that overlapped perfectly with her proposed ridge, he had to concede that she was correct. Her map would grace the cover of National Geographic and she was awarded the Hubbard Medal in 1978, which can be considered the Nobel Prize of the earth sciences.

    But next to historic figures, Andrews has also tapped into his network of colleagues and here features lively conversation drawn from his many interviews. The enthusiasm he shares with his fellow scientists is infectious, no matter whether he discusses the geologic riches of Yellowstone with the resident scientist Mike Poland, Kate Laxton's mission impossible to retrieve samples of the unique, runny carbonatite lava from Ol Doinyo Lengai, or Linda Morabito's investigation of photos taken by the Voyager probes that revealed ongoing volcanism on Jupiter's moon Io. Next to giving a good idea of what these scientists do and how they got interested in their fields of study, he also touches on the many questions that remain regarding volcanoes on Earth, but especially in our Solar System.

    Two things, in particular, stood out for me. One is that Andrews is interested in correcting misconceptions. This might be a popular science book, but as a volcanologist, he knows his subject. He abhors how it often gets misrepresented by the "unrelentingly enthusiastic screaming of tabloid newspapers and social media crystal-ball mystics". No, Yellowstone's volcano is not "Earth's self-destruct button" (p. 35) and the widely-adopted phrase supervolcano* has a very specific meaning amongst volcanologists. And though we often imagine a magma chamber as "a hollow lithological cathedral", the actual plumbing of volcanoes is far more complex. Better to imagine it as "a strange sponge, with the holes filled with a hellish gelatin" (p. 41).

    The other stand-out of this book is the writing. In places, Andrews is concise, such as when describing the use of LiDAR to map lava flows obscured by vegetation as a technology "capable of virtual deforestation" (p. 15). Or how the study of extraterrestrial volcanoes "underscores a vital truth: that Earth may be normal to us, but the universe has other ideas" (p. 261). In other places, he is poetic, such as when depicting how microbial life survives at great depths, "dreaming in darkness within vaults of glass" (p. 137). Or how the tidal tug of gravity keeps the insides of extraterrestrial moons warm, long after primordial heat has dissipated and radioactive decay has slowed down. This allows for ocean worlds and cryovolcanism such as on Saturn's moon Enceladus. "When it comes to keeping worlds alive, perhaps the tides of gravity are the only engines that transcend the tides of time" (p. 271). Foremost is his humour. Admittedly, pop-culture references to Star Wars and Game of Thrones might not amuse everyone, but I chortled when he described Venus "to be as habitable as the business end of a flamethrower" (p. 225). Or when he compares the two models of volcanism that might have created the enormous Tharsis rise on Mars; either as stack upon stack of erupted lava, "like hell's idea of pancakes" (p. 184), or by the crust expanding as it is fed magma as if it were "a giant, Lovecraftian éclair" (p. 185).

    To conclude this review I have to make a quick comparison with Natalie Starkey's Fire & Ice, which was published only a few months before Super Volcanoes. Both books cover very similar topics, including the same volcanoes, though Andrews includes much more detail on e.g. Ol Doinyo Lengai which Starkey mentions just once, or on the Martian Tharsis rise and the nearby Valles Marineris while Starkey focuses on Olympus Mons. Where Andrews has picked a select number of extraterrestrial locations, Starkey ranges wider in her Solar System tour. Super Volcanoes has a black-and-white illustration opening each chapter but could have used more – Fire & Ice at least had a colour plate section. It seems that the somewhat dated Alien Volcanoes is still the go-to book when it comes to pictures. In my opinion, Starkey puts the focus on education first with the entertainment factor a close second. She includes much about volcanism itself while telling the story in her own voice. Andrews puts entertainment first with the education factor a close second. He tells part of his story through the many scientists he interviewed. In my review of Fire & Ice, I mentioned the writing did not quite gel for me and this is where Super Volcanoes hit the sweet spot for me.

    Overall, Super Volcanoes is a hugely entertaining book on a fascinating subject that met its goal of leaving this reader with a grin on his face. This is a great example of deeply informed popular science written by a knowledgeable author.

    * I like to think that the insertion of a space between "super" and "volcanoes" in the title is a deliberate in-joke on Andrews's part – this is not a book about supervolcanoes, but about how super volcanoes are.
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Robin George Andrews is a science journalist with a PhD in volcanology. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, National Geographic, Scientific American, Atlas Obscura, and other publications. He lives in London, England.

Popular Science
By: Robin George Andrews(Author)
312 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
A deeply informed piece of popular science
Media reviews

"Like the charismatic time-traveling hero of [Doctor Who], this book by science journalist Andrews escorts readers on an adventure through space and time to the many volcanoes inhabiting this world and beyond [...] With references to pop culture [...] and a literary flair, this is the Baedeker of volcanoes, guiding readers through the world of volcanology."
Library Journal, starred review

"Enlightening [...] Andrewsdoes a superb job making complex geology accessible to more casual readers, and offers vivid descriptions of the forces behind both active and ancient volcanoes. As entertaining as it is informative, this is science writing done right."
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Delightful. Robin George Andrews brings his expertise and enthusiasm to bear on this explosive subject, vividly connecting the Hadean underworld of magma to the human one above, and inviting the reader into the ongoing quest to understand volcanoes' secrets – on Earth and far beyond."
– Peter Brannen, author of The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions

"A fine introduction to a spectacular geological phenomenon [...] [a] fascinating scientific adventure. Everything you ever wanted to know about volcanoes in expert hands."

"[Andrews] weaves a path through some of the most important recent eruptions and discoveries [...] [and] provides illuminating analogies that capture the uncertainty and unknowns of volcanology."
– Erik Klemetti, Washington Post

"Dr. Robin GeorgeAndrews wields the dual instruments of scientific training and journalistic curiosity with expert precision in Super Volcanoes. His skillful blend of storytelling and science fact sheds light into the dark crevasses of the human psyche, so often primed to fear volcanoes – yet another misunderstood feature of our natural world. Andrews's work gives voice to the wonder, the devastation, and the awe of being human in a world shaped by forces far outside of our control, yet still tantalizingly within reach for the scientists brave enough to heed the call of the volcanic unknown."
– Jess Phoenix, volcanologist and author of Ms. Adventure: My Wild Explorations in Science, Lava, and Life

"I always suspected that volcanoes were the most amazing things on Earth, but I never knew that they're also the most amazing things in the entire solar system. Andrews is a deeply informed and endlessly enthusiastic guide to these geological marvels."
– Steve Olson, author of Eruption and The Apocalypse Factory

"Andrews is in awe of his subjects; his zeal is obvious [...] his attentive reporting will be enjoyed by both the magma-curious and anyone who just wants to wonder at some of the strangest, strongest forces in the universe."
– Tess Joosse, Scientific American

"Dr. Robin Andrews takes us on an explosive, gassy, messy adventure decoding the epic hot mess that is volcanism on Earth and far beyond. If volcanoes have ever triggered even a minor explosion of fear, excitement, awe, confusion, or curiosity for you: Read. This. Book."
– Dr Janine Krippner, volcanologist, Smithsonian Institution Global Volcanism Program

"Andrews takes us on the adventure of a geological lifetime in Super Volcanoes, a masterwork which explores the engines of our world and of those throughout the solar system. We do not go alone on this epic journey, we are accompanied by those who have shared with us their colorful lived experiences and expertise which, when combined with a molten rock theme, means this is certainly no cold, hard science piece, but one of great humanity and scientific depth."
– James O'Donoghue, Planetary Scientist, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

"Fascinating [...] The science writing is consistently exciting and illuminating and kept me reading into the wee hours [...] Using his storytelling skills, Mr. Andrews offers us a solar system resembling a 'boundless library, one full of books whose words are written in volcanic ink.'"
– Robert M. Thorson, Wall Street Journal

"Andrews takes readers on a Cook's tour of volcanoes near and far, fuelling a broader curiosity about our planet and its place in the solar system [...] He is at his best when discussing those who live in the shadow of volcanoes and, especially, the scientists who study them [...] What volcanoes provide is an invitation to explore and wonder, with experts, at the stories they tell, as well as the possibility of looking at the Earth with new eyes. Supervolcanoes may be rare, but as Andrews makes clear, super volcanoes are everywhere."
– Andrew H. Knoll, Times Literary Supplement

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