Tuesday, 13 March 2018

From Frankenstein to Heinz Beans - with Café Scientifique

Jessica Collins writes:
Kate Ravilious
Photo: Ashley Phun
As a member of the crowd, I can say we were quite a lovely bunch. But it was hard not to be, with the well-spoken Kate Ravilious presenting such an intriguing story of volcanic eruptions and how they’ve shaped our world. The talk took us over a 252-million-year time span, and we were thankfully given just the highlights.

For example, in 1815, Kate tells us, you could look directly at the sun and see its spots. This was not due to some magical property of people’s eyes at the time, but the incredible eruption of Mount Tambora in what is now known as Indonesia. The subsequent sulphur and  particle cloud  that travelled far around the earth suppressed sunlight and caused the global temperature to decrease, leading the following year to be dubbed ‘The Year Without a Summer’.

The devastating effects of the eruption were not neglected: the immediate deaths as well as the subsequent agricultural crisis—which caused the poverty and deaths of thousands upon thousands—amongst them.

There were also some cultural effects. Rainfall forced some friends to stay indoors during their holiday in Switzerland, and they had a contest to see who could write the scariest story. I can’t remember if Mary Shelley won on the night, but surely that early draft of Frankenstein meant she won in the long-term? And I can only guess it was on another day that Lord Byron was inspired to write his poem ‘Darkness’.

Other inventions resulting from the weather during this time were an ancestor of the bicycle (an attempt at finding horseless transport not needing scarce crops to eat), many beautiful paintings, and mineral fertilizers.

Kate concluded the talk wondering if our current experiences of the drastic increase in CO2 emissions will result in similar bouts of creativity. I think it already has (efforts to utilise alternate energy sources as well as developments in eco-criticism spring to mind) and reflecting on developments of the past seemed to leave me a tad more hopeful than some of the others in the room. Change is inevitable, but change is inevitable, you know? That said, for all involved, it was certainly an engaging (and accessible!) evening which left us with lots to think about. Thanks, Kate.

Ellie Goodwin writes:
This talk was engaging and incredibly well pitched so that even I could just about grasp most of scientific elements that Kate discussed. She moved between the devastating human impact of volanoes, such as the estimated 100,000 lives lost in the aftermath following the eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815, to the fascinating creative output prompted by the effects of the volcanic ash that spread across the globe, moving on to the wider implications of these eruptions for our environment, and how this is dwarfed by the impact we inflict ourselves through global warming. She spoke with an assured ease that kept the audience enraptured.
Eruption of Mount Tambora

What was particularly striking for me was the evolution of people’s responses to volcanic disruption that could be seen throughout Kate’s talk. The prolonged red sunsets resulting from the ash of the 1815 Tambora eruption inspired the skies in J.M.W Turner’s paintings. Yet in much of the general population these skies prompted fear of the wrath of God and a certainty that the world was about to end. People found causes for the effects of the eruption in religious and even supernatural factors and, as Kate suggested, perhaps never understood the real reason for the dramatic weather of 1816, known as ‘the year without summer’, as news did not travel in that way.

Kate contrasted this to the Krakatoa eruption of 1883 which produced similar effects to Tambora, disrupting the weather around the world for five years! Yet, thanks to the invention of the electric telegraph in between these two major volcanic eruptions that allowed for information to be shared globally, people could understand that an Indonesian volcano had caused the disruption and largely stopped blaming divine or supernatural entities. Incredibly gentlemen scientists and weather watchers were able to map out the ash travelling from Krakatoa and their findings are still useful today (they mapped what we now know is the equatorial jetstream). Science becoming more prevalent and less difficult to take part in can be seen in the different responses to these two disruptive volcanoes.

As an English student, my primary interest prior to the talk was the creative output that flourished after these eruptions from writers like Byron and Mary Shelley and painters like Turner and Edvard Munch. But afterwards, the general population moving from frightened and god-fearing to well informed and capable of conducting their own scientific observations was what stuck with me the most. I think this just shows just how rich and informative the talk was, a real pleasure to listen to! 

Ashley Phun writes:
With a line connecting a volcanic eruption to the creation of Frankenstein by a bored but brilliant Mary Shelley, the butterfly effect seemed to be a recurring theme of Kate Ravilious’s ‘From Frankenstein to Heinz Beans’. Indeed, Ms. Ravilious’s speech shed light on the various ways in which volcanoes have left their mark through checkpoints such as the Great Dying mass extinction event and the Year without A Summer, where volcano-induced climate changes triggered a devastating loss of biodiversity and famine-related migration, respectively. These events have undoubtedly shaped the world we know today and stand as sobering reminders of Nature’s power.

However, the power of this presentation is also a testament to Ms. Ravilious’s skills as a speaker. Communicating her points with clarity and humour, Ms. Ravilious delivered an entertaining presentation that is effective in its ability to engage with a diverse audience without watering down important details or the weight of the content. In short, ‘From Frankenstein to Heinz Beans’ was an illuminating exploration of the often distant threat of volcanoes as well as its place in our collective history that left its audience with an appetite for more.

Sally Bavage adds a short anecdote about camping at Campi Flegrei on the bay of Naples.  Kate Ravilious, when asked about supervolcanoes that are deemed to be on the verge of exploding, mentioned the one we have probably all heard of – Yellowstone – and also this one at Pozzuoli (birthplace of Sophia Loren).

The campsite describes the volcano itself as dormant and even runs school tours that can walk round in the distinctly sulphurous atmosphere, keeping away from the bubbling mud pools and fumaroles.  We did, nervous about the warmth coming up through our sandals and the areas rather casually off-limits (a couple of poles and a bit of plastic tape).   We vowed never to stay there again.  Sadly, last September a boy on the official path I followed slipped into a chasm and his parents also died in an attempt to save him.


Headingley LitFest is really grateful for the support we received from Leeds University students Jess Collins, Ellie Goodwin and Ashley Phun.

Audience Comments

Very interesting evening

Very interesting – Kate is a clear and engaging speaker.  She made this science easily understood! Good slides.

Extremely interesting and engaging talk, good acoustics and decent venue.  Thank you.

Fascinating and well-presented talk

This talk was very interesting – so well researched and thoughtfully planed.  Kate's voice was clear and 'thrown' very well to the back seats – a huge thank you.

Learned a lot – worth attending

V interesting and informative

Interesting and well presented talk but I wondered about some of the theories described

Well presented and clear

Brilliant!  Entertaining, informative and well presented

Very enjoyable – not sure how accurate the 'blurb' was but I enjoyed it nevertheless.  Thank you

The talk is “From Frankenstein to Heinz Beans – how the weather has shaped our world” by the delightfully adjectival Ms Ravilious, science writer.  Well lectured and apprehensible by the interested layman pace and level.  Questions well handled.

The cloudy skies that occurred during the writing of the Frankenstein novel were an amazing world-wide event and it is great to hear a sophisticated scientific account of what happened.  Absolutely fascinating account, with pictures and graphics of volcanic eruptions over the last many million years

Very enjoyable, engaging and informative event

Interesting and clearly presented talk.  Scary end – we need to wake up to climate change

Well organised and enjoyable evening (but late to start).   Interesting talk.  Thank you

Excellent an  informative talk.  Well pitched and fascinating content.  She made hard science digestible and I overheard many positive comments about it

Great stuff, well thought out and building the case very well

So much I didn't know, so much to worry about, but a great event.  Thanks

A really informative speaker, who clearly loves her topic and had picked out some interesting stuff

Like the way she related it to the possibilities of disaster we face today – and made it relevant.  Just think – no famine in Germany and no Trumps in America.  If  only...

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