Excellent Science History
The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them) by Lucy Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Big Ones, by Dr. Lucy Jones is a wonderful accounting of many of the largest and most devastating natural disasters that have shaped our history. Dr. Jones lays out a compelling narrative about the role that natural disasters have played in advancing scientific thought and research, politics, and social norms. While Dr. Jones is a geologist (seismologist) by training, her recounting of natural disasters don't solely focus on geologic hazards, and often points out how human decisions (or lack thereof) not only help create, but often times exacerbate, a natural disaster and turns an event into a catastrophe. She explores the volcanic eruption of Pompeii, devastating floods in California in 1862 and the disastrous 1927 Mississippi River floods. The great earthquakes of Lisbon, Portugal in 1755 and Tokyo in 1923, as well as the earthquakes and tsunami that created wide destruction in the Indian Ocean in 2004 and East Japan in 2011. The range of disasters that she covers span not only recorded human history, but covers the range of geologic and meteorologic disasters.
I loved the history that Dr. Jones provides for each of the events, recounting the details of the disasters from personal accounts written at the time. And while these details are fascinating, and provide a human voice to the narrative, what I really enjoyed was the assessment and interpretation of the events and how these disasters helped shape our modern society. From transitioning from the beliefs that natural disasters were created by angry, vengeful, or just callous deities to our reliance on modern scientific theories. What really struck a chord with me was the focus on science communication, and how communication of the risks and probabilities of any single disaster can result in tragic consequences, or have a profound impact on bettering our society. How even into the modern era (the 20th and 21st centuries) a reliance to stick to old, outdated belief systems (even if backed by science) often lead to a greater catastrophe when a disaster does strike.
I highly recommend The Big Ones to anybody interested in science history. Dr. Jones' narrative is easy to follow, and she clearly conveys the knowledge and experience that she has gained over several decades working in the field. I listened to the audio version of the book, narrated by the author, and she does a great job. Her fluency in Chinese is evident when she tells of the earthquakes in China in the 1970s - one predicted, one not, and she displays her skill as a science communicator.