Mountains of Fire: The Secret Lives of Volcanoes by Clive Oppenheimer - review by John Gribbin

John Gribbin

Flames Beneath His Feet

Mountains of Fire: The Secret Lives of Volcanoes


Hodder & Stoughton 368pp £25 order from our bookshop

Mountains of Fire is ostensibly a book about volcanoes, but it is just as much about the adventures of volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer and his travels to explore them. He is now professor of volcanology at the University of Cambridge and has made a couple of acclaimed documentaries about his work. This, however, is neither a dry academic account of his research nor a standard popularisation. Instead, Oppenheimer weaves together science, history and culture into a book that is far greater than the sum of its parts. It is also a darn good read.

We meet Oppenheimer as a young student taking foolish risks to obtain measurements that end up proving useless, visit North Korea with him, find him at risk of being kidnapped or worse on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and end up joining him on Mount Erebus in Antarctica. The gripping narrative and stylish descriptions make this a real page-turner. If Michael Palin had been a volcanologist, this is the book he would have written.

The science is not forgotten, but along with other information that might break up the flow of the narrative it is confined to the eighty-two pages of notes that follow the main text (these can be ignored if all you are after is a good read). And, best

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