Category: Children's Books

Horst Rademacher
Am Rande des Kraters - Die unheimliche Faszination der Vulkane
[At the edge of the crater - The incredible fascination of volcanoes]

Review

We modern people of the early twenty-first century have an ambivalent relationship to nature. As a place of our longing we make it into an idyll in order to jump into our polluting cars and race to the next-closest—or even not so close—vacation area. At the same time we have become so far removed from nature that one of the widely circulated culture-critical anecdotes is that more and more city kids no longer know that milk in a container has anything to do with real-life cows.

We are confronted with the other side of nature through the media coverage of natural disasters. Hardly anything moves us as much as the eruption of unpredictable natural forces that go beyond our imagination. Just think of the undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean and the resulting tsunami in 2004. Such events bring together our shock at the human suffering and the mesmerizing fascination with the boundless, threatening power of nature.

Such a disaster represented the very beginnings of modern geosciences: after a devastating earthquake almost totally destroyed the Portuguese capital of Lisbon and killed many thousands on November 1, 1755, Immanuel Kant dedicated several writings to a systematic, natural science explanation to counter the moral-theological interpretation of the quake as divine punishment.

Two hundred fifty years later, despite all the modern techniques of measurements and investigation, the elemental forces of nature have not lost any of their appeal, even for the scientists themselves. Horst Rademacher, in Am Rande des Kraters (At the Edge of the Crater), offers an absorbing report on the “incredible fascination of volcanoes” (that’s the book’s subtitle). The geophysicist and science journalist takes us along from one volcanic eruption to another, showing us volcanoes on almost all earth’s continents—drawing our attention to the fact that not all volcanoes spew fire—and painting a vivid picture of the job of a volcanologist.

We learn about the acute volcanic danger facing today’s large metropolises and megacities and about the hazard that eruptions pose for the food supply for many people and for the global climate. On the other hand, it is astonishing to read about the emergence of new life through nutrients from the earth’s interior and the particularly fertile volcanic soil. The excellent illustrations, often on facing pages, give us an idea of the attractive force of experiencing these multifarious natural spectacles.

Reading the book we immediately note that he takes both his subject matter and his audience very seriously. He doesn’t resort to a proactive, simplified language and doesn’t get bogged down in overly didactic diagrams and schematics or information boxes (although the book does offer well-planned and -designed ones). No, this is an author who has himself visited more than a hundred active volcanoes and he writes for an inquiring readership from youth to adult, simply drawing us along through his scientific adventure novel with its extended passages written as a first-person narrative.

Already in the first chapter we are stunned and puzzled to learn of a group of scientists that was surprised by an eruption in the crater of the Colombian Galeras in 1993, which resulted in the death of several researchers. The wider Rademacher’s panorama becomes, the more clear it is that science is barely beginning to understand the internal mechanisms of volcanoes. This is why every scientist must be aware that venturing to the edge of the crater is life-threatening. Nevertheless, the eyes of many volcanologists light up in that moment of danger and they are dispassionate about the possibility of their own death. This cannot be explained solely by the thrill of the proverbial “dancing on a volcano”; fascination seems to be too weak a word for the phenomenon. Why would someone face such a risk?

Horst Rademacher answers this question with a personal conclusion. He evokes “respect for every volcano” and admits that, “when in the middle of the night I observe a glowing lava flow sliding down the slope at Mount Aetna, I am not thinking of science.” Despite all his caution, however, he is as driven as the volcanologists he accompanies, going from one mountain to the next. His descriptions suggest how the volcanic elemental force of nature offers the viewer a sublime experience, a final evocation of that which is inaccessibly archaic. Therefore, Am Rande des Kratersmakes it directly comprehensible for readers that the word “fascination” comes from the Latin fascinare, to bewitch or enchant.
Vorname Name

By Michael Sellhoff, 01.05.2011

​Michael Sellhoff is a research associate at the Philosophical Seminar of the University of Kiel and is a freelance editor.