Book Review: Into the Heart of Our World
by David Whitehouse
Pegasus Books, 2016
The “journey to the center of the Earth” mentioned in the interminable, 500-word, fully annotated and indexed subtitle of David Whitehouse’s new book Into the Heart of Our World: A Journey to the Center of the Earth: A Remarkable Voyage of Scientific Discovery is necessarily speculative. Human technology has thus far only managed to dig a little more than 12 miles into the Earth’s crust, and that crust is only a tiny fraction – roughly 1% – of Earth’s total mass. Jules Verne’s famous novel Journey to the Center of the Earth notwithstanding, mankind has never reached even the vast mantle of the planet beneath the crust, let alone the Earth’s outer core (which is the size of Mars) or inner core. As Whitehouse rightly points out, the very ground beneath our feet constitutes our first and most essential strange new world.
His book browses over the history of seismology and volcanology, tells some fascinating stories about the men and women who created those fields, and most engagingly, discusses some wide-ranging aspects of the science involved, including some subjects that at first seem fairly remote from the rocks and magma of Earth:
The heat energy produced by the nuclear furnaces at the centre of the Sun takes half a million years to get out, but the neutrinos produced in the nuclear reactions get out immediately, flashing away and not even noticing that the Sun is there. We have neutrino maps of them emerging, proving to us that the Sun is, right now, producing energy. Neutrinos are everywhere: sixty-five billion of them from the Sun pass through every square centimetre of the side of you facing the Sun, and they do you know harm.
The sense of awe that imposes itself on anybody watching a volcanic eruption from up close – and the sense of abject helplessness that accompanies being caught in an earthquake – are background strains running throughout Whitehouse’s book, coloring all the earth science with a slight but thrilling tinge of earth science fiction. The planet, our author reminds us, is a living thing, constantly churning and remaking itself – a magnificent process that may end up being catastrophic for the tiny biological creatures who happen to live on its outer surface:
The mantle is where the archaeology of our planet is stored along with many mysteries, newly recognised ancient structures and processes that may be necessary for life to exist on the surface. The Earth’s past is down there, and rising from its depths at a glacially slow speed is possibly the greatest environmental challenge mankind will face from our planet, leading to events that will dwarf any earthquake or volcanic eruption we have yet witnessed.
The science so effectively described in Into the Heart of Our World will be largely unfamiliar to most of Whitehouse’s readers, who’ll be grateful that he’s such an accessible and knowledgeable guide. They should only be skeptical of his repeated claim that Journey to the Centre of the Earth is the most popular novel Jules Verne ever wrote (ask the next fifty readers you meet if they know anything about it; then ask them if they recognize the name “Captain Nemo”) – but even in that case, his affection for the book is very charming. Harvard’s Belknap Press ought to sign him up to do an annotated version of Verne, which he could fill with the earth-science geekiness he so clearly loves.