Wednesday, July 20, 2011

In which Pliny the Younger describes a mushroom cloud

A cloud likeness and form resembling a pine tree; for it was elevated to a good height, with a long trunk, and distributed in several branches. The reason, I suppose, was that it was raised aloft by a sudden wind, and then relinquished by it, as it decayed, or else overpowered by its own weight, it spread it self into a large breadth; appearing sometimes white, sometimes shadowy, and variously coloured, as it was loaded with ashes or with earth. It struck him with surprise, and seemed to merit a nearer examination.

He's describing the eruption of Vesuvius, but if you're writing an alternative history about aliens nuking the Eternal City, it'd work there too.

[The same letter contains the most simultaneously silly and foreboding image I've seen in ancient literature: "They debated all together, whether they should stay in the house, or walk in the open field: For the buildings were shocked by violent and repeated earthquakes [but] the fall of the pumice stones, though light and eaten through, alarmed them. A comparison of the two dangers fixed their choice on the field...and to guard against the fall of the stones, they tied each of them a pillow about their heads with handkerchiefs or napkins. It was now day in other places, but there it was still night, more black and dismal than ever was known..."]


  1. They were smart scientific people and knew since Aristotle in The Meterologica that earthquakes were caused by the imprisonment of winds underground. What they were scientifically unfamiliar with was vulcanism, or to connect the eruption with Volcanoes and, the points at which these trapped winds finally escaped from inside the Earth into the atmosphere.

  2. Good context for that line, thanks.

  3. Recently saw a TV show about Pompeii and Herculaneum - and how Pliny the younger survived, while his dad Pliny the Elder did not. And that scene with the Adults being all smart and adult, debating on what to do next, made me angry and want to yell at him, Daaad!!

  4. Pliny II's actual letter is an interesting read. He means to flatter his father's memory, but reading it now...

    "Wellp, sure does look like the world's ending out there. Sky black as sackcloth, stones falling out of the heavens, blazing lights from Vesuvius and all around us people fleeing in terror from their burning towns... Think I'll take a nap."

  5. Mushroom cloud is an atmospheric phenomenon, not merely limited to kilotonnage-range explosions