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A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester
Sunday 23 October 2005
The world of the geologist changed for good in the 1960s. This was the decade of the discovery of plate tectonics and of an event of huge symbolism: when Neil Armstrong stood on the moon and had the ultimate outsider's view of the Earth - an image that sparked our imaginations and brought home the idea that the Earth was one huge living being.
Winchester has a gift for narrating stories which take in huge casts of characters, span decades, centuries or even millennia and he manages seamlessly to move from a high-ground overview to deep and detailed analysis, zooming out from a close-up of a geologist examining a tiny piece of rock to a long shot of the Earth from space.
The author makes a journey westward across the North American Plate, from Thingvellir in Iceland to America's west coast. It is separated from the Pacific Plate by the 750-mile long San Andreas Fault which is central to the story of the 1906 earthquake. The date of the event, we learn, coincided withthe growth of photography, so it was the first natural disaster to be widely recorded and there are more black-and-white archive photographs of 1906 San Francisco in archives around the world than of any other city.
Winchester crams in many facts but infuses the text with surprising detail - geologist Robert Wallace mapped the San Andreas Fault, but he comes to life when we learn that he worked in the desert and serenaded the coyotes on his violin. In the chapter chronicling the earthquake itself there are fascinating details, such as the presence of opera singer Enrico Caruso in the city on the night of the quake - apparently believing that it was a punishment sent to him personally. There's Dennis Sullivan, the city's fire chief, killed in his apartment by a falling chimney as he sought to save his wife, who survived. Or the statue of the biologist Louis Agassiz that plunged head first into the Stanford University courtyard, prompting one person to comment that he had always thought of Agassiz more easily in the concrete than the abstract.
In most books, footnotes are an unwelcome distraction from the narrative, but here they are treats. Skim to the end of the page to find that Charles Richter, who gave us the scale by which we commonly measure earthquakes, was also a keen nudist and man of prodigious sexual appetite.
Winchester also gives us a social history, revealing, for example, how shabbily the inhabitants of San Francisco's Chinatown - the first in the world - were treated. But most of all, the book is written with a passion and intelligence that make it compelling as Winchester describes the fragility of our world, evoking memories of last year's Boxing Day earthquake and tsunamis which killed 275,000, and reminding us that the 1906 quake will not be San Francisco's last.
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