The Old Blind Sun

“Place is, at a basic level, space invested with meaning in the context of power.” – Tim Cresswell

The newest mountain in Europe – unimaginatively named Monte Nuovo – is a 132-meter-tall cinder cone on the shore of Lake Avernus in the Phlegraean Fields caldera complex west of the urban core of Naples, Italy. According to Mauro di Vito, et al., who reconstructed the event “through geological, volcanological and petrological investigations, and analyses of historical documents,” Monte Nuovo began to erupt from a vent in the ground around 7 pm on September 29th, 1538. The first day of the eruption, its main phase, included a twelve hour period in which the volcano exploded continuously. For several days afterward, it was nearly quiescent. Then a second series of explosions (lower energy and discontinuous) began in the late afternoon of October 3rd and continued into the early evening of October 4th, after which the volcano again went quiet. A last, violent explosion on October 6th surprised twenty-four intrepid locals hiking up to the rim for a better look at the action – assimilating them into the lithic fabric of the crater, along with the whole medieval village of Tripergole, Cicero’s famously opulent Academia villa, and, very possibly, if Strabo and his source Ephorus can be believed, the archaeological remains of a troglodytic community of ‘Cimmerians’ whose sibyl predated the Cumaean one.

There is a whole PhD to be written (by me) about how this space has historically been invested with meaning. Here on my sickbed, however, I want to spare a very brief moment to consider the “context of power” in which that investment has taken (and continues to take) place – from the standpoint of geophysics, not politics.

The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) is a relative measurement of volcanic eruptions based on their volumes of ejecta. Monte Nuovo is estimated to have been a VEI 2. Per a years-old suggestion on the Earth Science Stack Exchange, it may be possible to (very, very roughly) estimate the total energy released for a given VEI class as E = 10^(aM+c), where E is the total energy released in joules, a ≈ 0.79, M is the VEI of the eruption, and c = 14.

In this case, E = 10^((0.79*2)+14)) or 10^15.3 Joules. That is, 3,801,893,963,205,613 joules or so.

Now, energy isn’t power of course. As with so many other things, translating energy into the terms of power requires time.

The watt, an SI unit of power, is equivalent to 1 joule per second. In addition to the twelve hours of continuous high-energy explosions between September 29-30, let’s throw in another eight hours of discontinuous ones during that first day. And perhaps seven total hours of discontinuous eruptions during the twenty-four hours between October 3-4; and then a last three hours on October 6th. For the sake of simplicity, let’s not bother ourselves with trying to estimate the difference between and high- and low-energy explosions in the three phases of explosivity. Rather, let’s just say that there were ~30 explosion-hours during the course of that fateful week.

30 hours = 108,000 seconds. 3,801,893,963,205,613 joules / 108,000 seconds = ~35,202,721,882 watts (or 35,203 megawatts or 35 gigawatts) of power – all vented through a hole in ground (well, three of them, actually) encompassed by a crater that’s eighty meters deep and four hundred meters in diameter. I mean, just look. It’s the maw of a titan, roaring up from hell.

Gaia (in the sense that James Lovelock meant it, and that of the primordial being impregnated by Tartarus who gave birth to huge fiery monsters) is poised between two suns. From above, one of them contributes ~170 petawatts of heat flux that powers the oceans, atmosphere, and much of the biosphere; the other, the earth’s core (hotter than the solar surface), contributes only a tiny fraction of that from below – something more on the order of 47 terawatts – but with it maintains the planetary magnetic field, drives mantle convection (and plate tectonics thereby), and so powers earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

And, depending on your conception of history (and/or epistemology), much besides. As Michel Serres explained to Bruno Latour in 1991 (or professed to; slippery as he was, one can’t ever know for certain what Serres meant, much less what he intended):

“In [the history of science] one is forced to connect the sciences to one another, and to other cultural formations. Let’s give Husserl his due – his Krisis invents precisely this notion of cultural formation. In his description of the crisis of western science he wonders if this original formation that we call science is independent of the others. The word formation, as he uses it, signifies something like a layer of the earth, geologically formed and deformed by and through the earth’s evolution.”


“It seemed to me that [Husserl] applied an authentic structuralism to the humanities, to religious history — a discipline that has always fascinated me, since I am still convinced that it forms the deepest plate in the history of cultures. By plate I mean what earth scientists mean by this word — thus continuing the image Husserl used when he spoke of ‘formation’. A plate that is deeply submerged. Buried, often opaque and dark, that transforms itself with infinite slowness but which explains very well the discontinuous changes and perceptible ruptures that take place above. Indeed, in comparison to religious history, that of the sciences seems superficial, recent — like a surface landscape, quite visible and shimmering. What’s more, when you study religious history in detail, that of the sciences seems to imitate or repeat it!”


“The regime of revolutions is no doubt only apparent. What if, behind them and beneath these schisms, flowed (or percolated) slow and viscous fluxes? Do you recall the geological theory of plate tectonics? Intermittent earthquakes result in sudden breaks not far from known faults, like the San Andreas fault in California. But underneath, continuous and extraordinarily slow movements explain these sudden breaks where the quakes occur. And even further below these continuous movements that pull, tranquilly but inexorably, is a core of heat that maintains or propels the moving crust. And what is the inner sun of these mechanisms? Our old hot planet, which is cooling. Earth is that very sun. (emphasis mine)

Are the breaks in history similarly brought about from below by an extraordinarily slow movement that puts us in communication with the past, but at immense depths? The surface gives the impression of totally discontinuous ruptures. Earthquakes — in this case, quakes of history or of mobs, sometimes — whose brief violence destroys cities and remodels landscapes but which, at a very deep level, continue an extraordinarily regular movement, barely perceptible, on an entirely different scale of time. 

May I say that in this we can glimpse the history of religions, for example, which forms the lowest plate — the deepest, the most buried, almost invisible, and surely the slowest moving. But what I would like to catch a glimpse of, beyond that, and deeper yet, is the furnace-like interior, so hidden, that blindly moves us.”

Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time: Michel Serres with Bruno Latour

By comparison, the Archiflegrean eruption 40,000 years ago – which created the vast caldera complex in which Monte Nuovo subsequently emerged – is estimated to have been a VEI 7 or 8. That is, among the most powerful volcanic events in Earth history for which there is a material record, during which something like 10^19.53 to 10^20.32 joules of energy were released. Can you imagine being a Neanderthal, hearing something inexplicable – and horrifyingly loud – in the distance, and then looking up to see that in the night sky?

2 Responses to “The Old Blind Sun”

  1. priezza Says:

    A good one.  Substantial. 

    “Terrawatt”, sic. 

  2. wchambliss Says:

    “Terrawatt” vs. “terawatt” is like saying one thing and meaning your mother.

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