Monday, 20 March 2017

Tsunamis and sunsets: how natural disasters can inspire creativity

Just as war is seen as a boost to developments in military technology, so major disasters can lead to fruitful outbursts in creativity. The word disaster, literally meaning 'bad star' in Ancient Greek, might seem more appropriate to meterorite impacts or portents associated with comets, but there are plenty of terrestrial events worthy of the name. One interesting geophysical example appears to have had an obvious effect on Western art and literature: the eruption of Mount Tambora in April 1815.

This Indonesian volcano exploded with such force that ash fell in a cloud over 2,500 km in diameter, with the initial flows and tsunami causing over 10,000 deaths. The subsequent death toll may have been ten times that number, primarily due to starvation and disease. The short-term changes in climate are thought to have accelerated the spread of a cholera strain, leading eventually to millions of deaths during the next few decades.

Although volcanic aerosols lasted for some months after the eruption, the effects were still being felt the following year. Indeed, 1816 earned such delightful nicknames as 'The Year Without a Summer' and 'Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death', with global temperatures dropping just over half a degree Celsius. This might not sound like much, but as an example of the freak conditions the northern USA received snow in June. Thanks to the recording of weather data at the time, it seems that the climate didn't return to normal for that period until 1819.

The terrible weather and its resulting famines and spread of disease led to riots in many nations, with the short-term appearance of vivid sunsets - due to the fine volcanic dust - failing to make up for the deprivations of food shortages and very cold conditions. One artist who was probably inspired by the former effect was J.M.W. Turner, whose paintings of evening skies appear extremely garish. As a child, I thought this seemingly unnatural colouration was due to artifice, not realising that Turner was depicting reality.

The post-Tambora aerosols contributed to Turner's stylistic change towards depicting the atmospheric effects of light at the expense of form. His radiant skies and translucent ambience inspired the Impressionist school of painting, so perhaps modern art can be said to have its roots in this two hundred year-old disaster.

Literature also owes a debt to Tambora's aftermath: during their famous Swiss holiday in June 1816, Lord Byron produced the outline of the first modern vampire story whilst Mary Shelley started writing Frankenstein. It's easy to suggest that the food riots and wintry weather then current in Switzerland could have contributed towards her tale, in which mankind's best efforts to control nature are doomed to failure.

However, it isn't just the arts that were affected by the aftermath of the volcanic eruption: several key technologies had their roots in the widespread food shortages generated by Tambora. In 1817 the German inventor Karl Drais, aware of the lack of fodder then available to feed horses, developed the earliest steerable - if pedal-less - bicycle. Although its use was short-lived, the velocipede or hobby horse was the first link in the chain (go on, spot the pun) that led to the modern bicycle.

If that doesn't appear too convincing, then the work of another German, the chemist Justus von Liebig, might do. Having as a child been a victim of the post-Tambora famine, von Liebig is known as the 'father of the fertiliser industry' for his work in the 1840s to increase crop yields via nitrogen-based fertilisers.

There is still a widespread perception that scientists' thought processes differ from the rest of humanity's, utilising thought methods that lack any emotion. However, the after effects of Tambora imply that creativity in response to surroundings can be just as important for scientific advance, in the same way that artists respond to their immediate environment. Hopefully, recognition of this will be another nail in the coffin for the harmful idea of C.P. Snow's 'Two Cultures' and lead more people to respect the values of science, upon which our civilisation so heavily relies. Perhaps that way we'll be rather better prepared for the next great natural disaster; after all, it's only a question of time...