A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 4, Chapter 14 : Dangerous Planet (The Fire Below) | Summary



Bryson discusses the potential for natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in order to contextualize what an eruption of the supervolcano at Yellowstone National Park would mean. He opens the chapter with a description of Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park in Nebraska. After discovering the site in 1971, American geologist Mike Voorhies quickly realized a layer of volcanic ash up to 10 feet deep had buried the fossils. A geologist named Bill Bonnichsen found the ash from the fossil beds matched a deposit in Idaho. The source was the eruption of a massive volcano 630,000 years ago in what is now Yellowstone National Park.

Bryson then transitions to a discussion of how scientists gained an understanding of the interior of Earth, noting "we know amazingly little about what happens beneath the feet." The first real understanding of the inside of Earth came from Danish scientist Inge Lehmann's studies of earthquake seismographs in 1936. Lehmann discovered Earth had two cores: a solid inner one and a liquid outer one. At the same time American geologists Charles Richter and Beno Gutenberg devised a method of comparing earthquake intensity—the Richter scale, which rises exponentially. Bryson then describes a variety of earthquakes, noting some of the most devastating, and their causes. The most common earthquakes occur when two tectonic plates meet. Rarer quakes are caused by ruptures within plates, and little is known about their cause.

Next Bryson discusses the Mohole project of the 1960s, in which scientists attempted to drill through Earth in the Pacific Ocean. In Russia scientists attempted the same project at the Kola Peninsula. Neither project reached the researchers' ultimate goal depths. Even so, what they learned was surprising, including finding higher than expected temperatures. The author then describes what geologists currently know about Earth's composition; it is composed of a "rocky outer crust, a mantle of hot, viscous rock, a liquid outer core, and a solid inner core." However, the specifics of these layers are under much debate because there is little collaboration between geologists and geophysicists. Bryson ends with a discussion of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State to compare the effects of a recent volcanic eruption with the Yellowstone blast 630,000 years ago. Mount St. Helens killed 57 people and caused the largest landslide in human history. While the volcano had been rumbling for two months, the nearby town of Yakima had no emergency procedures in place.


Bryson continues to show the potential for Earth's destruction by highlighting the potential for a "volcanic explosion on a scale previously unimagined" at Yellowstone. He presents the dangerous potential of a Yellowstone eruption alongside the fact science actually has little understanding of Earth's composition. He points out science knows more about the interior of some extraterrestrial bodies than about this planet; yet the destructive potential that lies within Earth is immense. Not only does Yellowstone have a massive underground caldera that is overdue for an explosion, but earthquakes are a regular occurrence at Yellowstone National Park. Knowledge about earthquakes is extremely limited—scientists only understand the most common type that occurs.

Bryson notes a lack of communication between geologists and geophysicists explains in large part why there is such little understanding of Earth's composition. While each scientific discipline is unique in its focus, there is ultimately some overlap between the different fields and it is in the space of these overlaps some of the most interesting insights are made. Bryson argues collaboration is vitally important, not only for the advancement of science, but also because of the practical applications. He discusses the Mount St. Helens eruption in part to emphasize the "limitations of the understandings." This loss of life could potentially have been mitigated if the volcano had not been misread.

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