|Blast zones on Mount St. Helens, geysers on Saturn's Titan, hot lava, dust devils, fire fountains, icy moons. The unabashedly dramatic nature of volcanoes that permeates the pages and pictures of "Volcanic Worlds: Exploring the Solar System's Volcanoes" (Springer-Praxis, 2004), edited by Rosaly M.C. Lopes and Tracy K.P. Gregg, is matched by the equally passionate voices of the 11 women who contributed to the book.
Written to introduce high school and college students—as well as anyone without a serious science background—to the awe-inspiring science of volcanology, the book was not conceived as written only by female authors. "Rosaly and I were discussing which scientists we could get to cover each different aspect of volcanology, when all of a sudden we realized that each scientist we had mentioned is a woman," recalls Gregg, associate professor of geology in the College of Arts and Sciences.
That fact underlines just how remarkable the current era is for women in science, she added. "This is a landmark book," she said. "Even five years ago, we could not have done this. We were too young, not established enough in our fields. But there are now, finally, enough women in the higher echelons of volcanology that we could write a book like this."
While the stories about discoveries in volcanology will fascinate budding scientists of both genders, the editors hope that young women, in particular, will benefit from reading the book, which features an introduction from astronaut Sally Ride. "Our hope," said Gregg, "is that people give it this holiday season to their daughters and sisters so that they can see that not only are Earth and other planets incredibly exciting places, but that there are avenues out there worth exploring that are not presumed to be traditionally of interest to women. We want to dispel the myth that they can't do the science."
Woven among the 10 essays describing in simple and colorful terms geologic phenomena such as plate tectonics, pillow basalts and geysers, are the scientists' personal memories and observations. Several chapters include poems written by native peoples throughout history who have witnessed eruptions. Each chapter is preceded by the author's description of why and how she decided to study volcanoes.
Lisa Gaddis of the U.S. Geological Survey states simply: "The moon has been mine as long as I can remember...I fully expect that my children and yours, or perhaps their descendants, will someday live and work on the moon."
The lure of studying phenomena at once beautiful and dangerous is described vividly, and firsthand accounts of people who have lived through violent eruptions and tsunamis also are referenced. Susan W. Kieffer of the University of Illinois describes witnessing a geyser eruption in the middle of the night at Yellowstone National Park. "Suddenly," she recalls, "a fissure splits the surface and billowing clouds of sulfurous gases hurl ice and ash into the sky."
The excitement of new discoveries even on planets that readers cannot yet visit also is revealed. Lopes, research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, remembers hearing the news that Io, one of Jupiter's moons, was found to have active volcanoes, data that contradicted scientific assumptions that held that "little worlds the size of Io must be dead like our own moon."
The challenge of studying volcanoes on distant planets also is explored. In the chapter "Submarine Volcanoes: The Hidden Face of the Earth," Gregg describes how her interest in volcanoes on Venus and Mars led her to mid-ocean ridges on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Most of Earth's volcanoes, she notes, are located on ocean floors.
Lava lakes on the surface of other planets, she says, may function the way these ridges do on Earth, spilling huge amounts of lava, generating new crust.To study Earth's ridges, Gregg has made several dives two miles below the surface in the battery-powered submersible vehicle "Alvin," where for periods as long as eight hours, she shared a cabin just eight feet in diameter with the pilot and another scientist. The team trolled the ocean's bottom with high-resolution video cameras to collect data about geologic features that allowed volcanologists to make the first-ever computer simulations of eruptions under the sea.
Gregg writes that these mid-ocean ridges "will continue to enlighten us about the inner workings of our own planet and those of other planets, as well."