PERILS OF A RESTLESS PLANET, SCIENTIFIC PERSPECTIVES ON NATURAL DISASTERS by Ernest Zebrowski, Jr. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 287 pages, index. Hardcover; price not shown.
The author, a physics professor at Pennsylvania State University, has written a gem. This book, which combines observations on the ways of science, described in unusually lucid prose, with discussions on some of those events of our times which excite our imaginations the most, natural disasters. The prose is free-flowing, clear and a pleasure to read; the materials presented are college-level and one can hardly come away from the book without knowing he (or she) has been touched by a master teacher. The storytelling is "human," without being sensational.

Because the book does not touch directly on religious/scientific issues, this review will be brief. But it does provide data for religious/scientific issues, and so it is worthy of reading by ASA members and their students. A few excerpts from the book will illustrate this.

Page 56, "Engineering is a tougher business than science." I have my own ideas on this statement, having been in both professions, and I am sure you do too! Consider this example professor Zebrowski discusses in defense of his thesis. In the Mexico City earthquake of September 19, 1985, reinforced concrete structures under 6 stories and over 15 stories in height generally survived; those in between sustained heavy damage or collapsed catastrophically. The reason? The earthquake wave had a two second period -- and this is the natural vibrational period of buildings of this height!

Another example: compare the earthquake in San Francisco, 1906 with that in Messina, 1908. 700 died in San Francisco, over 100,000 in Messina. Why? San Francisco had more than double the population, and the earthquake there was five times as intense! Tsunamis were not a factor. San Francisco's fire was much more devastating. The residents of both cities were familiar with prior earthquakes. Geological science and fault mapping in the two areas were comparable. Why, then, the over 1000 times difference in loss of life?

The answer, Zebrowski argues, is to be found in the type of building construction found in the two towns. Wood was predominant in San Francisco, masonry (which does not flex well) in Messina. Most of the deaths in Messina were people crushed to death by falling walls within their own houses!

There is much more in this book -- food for thought. A very good discussion of the Easter Island disaster (human-caused, in this case). Discussions of tornados, hurricanes, epidemics, volcanos, floods, etc. I recommend it to all ASA members as a challenging read.

John W. Burgeson, Durango, Colorado

Published in PERSPECTIVES, the quarterly journal of the ASA, in Volume 50, #3, Sept 1998.

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