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DISCOVER Vol. 26 No. 02 | February 2005







Pompeii: The Last Day

Discovery Channel

January 30, 2005;

repeats February 1 and 5

Courtesy of BBC/Discovery Channel


More than 3,000 people died when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79.


The Romans didn’t even have a word for volcano. That could explain why, when Mount Vesuvius erupted on August 24, A.D. 79, many citizens of Pompeii who could have fled chose to remain. Stupefied by the sight of a thundering eruption of ash and lava 15 miles high, they were buried by falling pumice, suffocated by noxious gases, and incinerated by avalanches of steam and debris that tore through the town at more than 60 miles an hour. Pompeii: The Last Day, an enthralling BBC docudrama, re-creates the terror of the city’s hapless inhabitants—including a pregnant woman, a couple embracing, a man fleeing with a sack of gold—with the aid of engravings, gold jewelry, corpses encased for 1,500 years in ashy plaster, and the words of observer Pliny the Younger: “A fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame and parted to reveal great tongues of fire. . . . I derived some poor consolation that the whole world was dying, and me with it.”           

Megan Mansell Williams








Courtesy of Louisiana Bucket Brigade


A playground in Diamond, Louisiana, faces a Shell plant.

: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor

By Steve Lerner; MIT Press, $27.95


Diamond, Louisiana, boasts what may be one of the world’s least enticing views: the maze of stacks and pipelines that make up Shell Oil’s giant Norco industrial complex. The miserable location of the town, now officially a subdivision of the city of Norco, belies its illustrious past. In 1811 Diamond was the site of the largest slave revolt in American history. Nearly 200 years later the African-American community, including descendants of the rebellious slaves, rose up in a new fight against the world’s third largest petrochemical company.


The streets of Diamond sat smack between a chemical plant and an oil refinery, both owned by Shell. Residents could read at night by the light of flares from burned-off gases, and their living rooms stank horribly from waste emissions. The town lived in fear of leaks and deadly explosions. But it was the persistent health problems—42 percent of residents reported respiratory problems and 35 percent of children had asthma, while others suffered from rare skin diseases and cancers—that galvanized local activists to confront Shell.


Steve Lerner, research director of Commonweal, a health and environmental research institute in Bolinas, California, documents this David-and-Goliath struggle through extensive interviews with locals and Shell officials. He highlights the role of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a team of residents armed with a cheap air-sampling device: a can lined with a bag made of Tedlar, a nonreactive plastic. With this bucket, volunteers collected benzene, a carcinogen, as well as toluene and other toxins from the air, providing the empirical evidence needed to show that the company was poisoning the town. In one moving episode, community leader Margie Richard traveled to the Netherlands with a pollutant-filled bucket, confronting one Shell executive with the words, “Sir, would you like to breathe this air?”


By 2002 Diamond residents had won relocation funds from Shell, but the company never admitted that it had damaged the inhabitants’ health. And this victory, after more than two decades of painful struggle, broke up families and destroyed the community. In the end, Diamond became a ghost town in which only driveways remain to mark the sites of demolished homes.          

JM Tyree







Uncorked: The Science of Champagne

By Gérard Liger-Belair

Princeton University Press, $19.95


The real action in a glass of champagne occurs at the molecular level, according to Gérard Liger-Belair, a physical scientist and consultant to the Moët-Chandon winery. Using stop-motion photography, he illustrates the fizzy beauty beneath the surface of a champagne flute, explaining how bubbles form, why they spin like galaxies, and what the forces are that finally impel them to pop.           Zach Zorich




Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio

By Jeffrey Kluger

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, $25.95


In 1955 Jonas Salk announced the creation of the first safe and effective polio vaccine. Kluger, a senior writer at Time magazine, adeptly re-creates the tortuous path that led to its development, giving credit in part to Salk’s mother, Dora, who kept a spotless home and shielded her toddler son from the sneezes of neighborhood children during a terrible 1916 New York polio outbreak.          

Anne Haas






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The geology and putative existence of an ocean beneath the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa is described at

Read more about the Rainforest Alliance at

Pliny the Younger described the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in two vivid letters, translations of which appear at

The Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University fights environmental racism. For more about their work, see

A biography of mathematician Emmy Noether appears at

Jonas Salk established the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego in the 1960s. For a short biography of Salk and more, see


Ultimate Robot by Robert Malone (DK Publishing, 2004) celebrates the robot in all its diverse forms: as techno toy, cyber pet, space probe, industrial instrument, household helper, and cultural icon.

If an Electron Can Be in Two Places at Once, Why Can’t You?

Doug Melton: Crossing Boundaries

The Dragons of Liaoning

MIT Nerds

Is a Single Brain Cell Smart Enough to Recognize Your Face?

Think Tank

Tusk Tales


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