June 06, 2013


Eruption! Volcanoes and the Science of Saving Lives. By Elizabeth Rusch. Photographs by Tom Uhlman. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.

Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life. By Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica. Viking. $27.95.

     One of the most fascinating and dramatic entries in the excellent “Scientists in the Field” series, Eruption! is the story of the world’s only international volcano crisis team, the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP). Founded the year after the disastrous 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia killed more than 23,000 people, VDAP – a group of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey – has studied volcanoes, refining measurement and predictive techniques and responding to calls for help from anywhere in the world. Elizabeth Rusch’s story of these volcanologists is filled with all the drama of a novel: “‘LET’S GO!’ Rick hollered from upstairs. Geez, Andy thought. What’s up with him? Rick raced down the stairs, taking two at a time, just as Andy opened the front door. A huge black ash column pumped out of the volcano, filling the sky. ‘OH MY GOD!’ Andy shouted. The column rose up higher and higher. Rick and Andy jumped into their truck and raced off.” Not everything is this dramatic, but much of this book is. The scientists clearly revel in what they are doing – and, of necessity, take it extremely seriously even when they make lighthearted remarks, since volcanic eruptions can be devastating and remain only imperfectly predictable. That fact makes the successes of VDAP all the more notable – for example, the evacuation of Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines in June 1991, just days before Mount Pinatubo exploded in the second-largest eruption of the 20th century. However brilliant, involved and committed these scientists are, they are well aware that they could face death anytime: “This time the scientists knew they had no time to evacuate. They raced for the back of the building, the farthest they could get from the erupting monster. They waited, panting, sweating. Andy could stand it no longer. He went back to the front door. All he saw was black – complete black – from the rain, the dark clouds, the ash fall. The sound was terrifying – like a wall of rock a mile high racing down at breakneck speeds. I could die, Andy thought. All my friends could die.

     Balancing these scenes of high drama with informational segments is not easy, but Rusch does so very effectively, for example explaining the “Ring of Fire” around the Pacific Plate by comparing Earth’s structure to peanut M&M candies: “The crust, like the crunchy candy coating of the M&M, is a shell of solid rock. The mantle is like the soft chocolate, with rock so hot that it melts into thick paste. The core is like the peanut, solid metal in the center of the earth. …[But] the crust is not all in one piece. It’s broken up into huge slabs, called plates, that cover the planet like a jigsaw puzzle.” And while Rusch is explaining, narrating and portraying, readers will be captured and captivated by Tom Uhlman’s spectacular photos, which not only show the scientists at work and the volcanoes looming picturesquely or menacingly above nearby settlements but also focus on the people who live in volcanoes’ shadows – and the astonishing sights during actual eruptions. Photos of barely visible, motorcycle-riding residents during an ash storm, and of a lone vehicle fleeing on a dirt road as gigantic pyroclastic flows close in on it, are unforgettable. So are pictures of the devastation left behind after eruptions, with a photo of two children holding hands at the graves of volcano victims being the most affecting of all. Eruption! is an amazing book on many levels, not the least of which is the realization that the scientists traveling the world from danger to danger, taking samples, doing laboratory work and reading instruments, give every impression of being exactly where they want to be, doing exactly what they want to do – being perfectly in their element.

     Not many people in everyday 21st-century life feel their lives are so in tune with what matters most deeply to them, and that is the situation addressed by Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica in The Element and its just-released successor, Finding Your Element. There is not really anything very new in what Robinson and Aronica say – it is a longstanding clich√© that the best work you can have is a job where you are paid for doing what you would gladly do for free, and the whole capital-E “Element” notion simply expands on that. What the authors do is dress it up in research, analysis and self-help terminology. Their “Element” structure is basically a version of Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy, which they mention in Finding Your Element as a foundation: “Whatever your circumstances may be, in many ways finding your Element is, above anything else, about finding meaning and purpose in your life.” But of course that single observation is not enough to make a whole book (or two books), so what Robinson and Aronica do is flesh it out with ideas, questions, and anecdotes about people who discovered their Element either by searching actively for it or by stumbling upon it and realizing that it was what they were “meant to do.” The questions in Finding Your Element are the main thing Robinson and Aronica have to offer. “Is there something you do that consistently elevates your spirits? When do you experience stretches of real joy?” “How much do you want to be in your Element? How hard are you willing to work to get there?” “What are the biggest hurdles? What would it take to get over them?” “What sorts of people do you associate with your Element? Do they interest and attract you or not? Do you know why?” And so on and so forth. Coupling these questions with comments such as, “You may not know what all your aptitudes are because you may never have called on some of them,” Robinson and Aronica urge readers to think through – and feel through – their interests, abilities, experiences, knowledge and passions to come up with whatever is most meaningful to them, then take steps to synchronize their lives and Elements. They provide a series of exercises that range from the wholly mundane (develop an action plan) to the somewhat intriguing (write a letter to an imaginary supporter of your future plans, describing your interests and personal qualities and trying “to see yourself fresh as someone else might”). The eventual objective of finding your Element is neatly summed up in the title of the book’s final chapter, “Living a Life of Passion and Purpose.”

     Finding Your Element is a (+++) book that will appeal to the many people who consider themselves unfulfilled, out of sync with what they really want in life – people who have likely bought similar books before this one and will likely buy others afterwards. The ultimate problem with the book is not its comparatively uninventive premise but its unwillingness to tackle elements of the real world, even when it acknowledges them. For example, Robinson and Aronica cite a Gallup survey of people in more than 150 countries that breaks down well-being into five broad categories: career, social, financial, physical and community. They mention Gallup’s conclusion that 66% of people surveyed were doing well in at least one area, but only 7% were doing well in all of them (a finding that should not have been a big surprise to anyone). But although Robinson and Aronica pay lip service to “balance and fulfillment across each of these areas,” Finding Your Element does not take the social/familial ones into account except in the sense that some people may believe their Element is, say, being a parent. There is an underlying selfishness to the whole Element concept that is belied by the authors’ mentions of Gandhi and others whose Element involved reaching out and helping others. Self-fulfillment need not come at others’ expense, and Robinson and Aronica do not say that it should; but most people do indeed live within the five Gallup categories (or within Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which the authors never mention). There is nothing here to connect one’s Element with the circumstances of one’s everyday life as they involve relationships with other people – except coincidentally, as in the case of the VDAP volcanologists, so clearly in their Element with their fellow highly committed scientists.

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