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Steever's adventure turns on the heat

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Adventures in the World's Fiery Places

By Bill Streever

Little, Brown, 368 pages, $30

A subject as broad as heat has to be tackled on a multi-disciplinary basis.

It needn't also be tackled as a personal odyssey, but Bill Streever's produced a better book for it.

Streever is an Alaska-based writer science writer. He previously authored the 2009 bestseller Cold. Extremes of temperature are apparently his shtick.

His second book mixes chemistry, history, anthropology, climatology, geology and geography -- with dollops of economics, politics and the culinary arts thrown in for good measure. Last, but not least, chunks of travel writing are also tossed into the recipe. But it's all a smooth blend.

His scientific explorations of heat in all its forms and sources run parallel to a personal quest -- a foray into fire walking.

Both the science and spiritualism (much of it little more than New Age mumbo-jumbo) of fire walking surface throughout the book. And the prolonged buildup to his barefoot stroll across a bed of red-hot cedar coals adds a touch of tension -- will he or won't he be burned? -- to the narrative.

He adeptly explains scientific principles and their applications in human terms, and via specific examples. It's almost as if Streever has hit upon a winning formula for popular-science writing that doesn't -- at least overtly -- dumb down the substantive science.

The book also works as a travel narrative.

When Streever writes about volcanoes and lava flows he combines it with an excursion to tiptoe around the molten edges of one of Hawaii's active volcanoes, Kilauea Iki. When he considers the dangerous intersection of urban development and tinder-dry chaparral in southern California, he traverses the fire-ridden hill country near Santa Barbara.

When he writes about peat mining he goes to the Netherlands to view ancient beds of the most primitive of fossil fuels. Coal mining takes him to England (and prompts a digression on Charles Dickens as chronicler of the industrial revolution).

To chronicle pioneering 19th-century oil drilling in western Pennsylvania, he heads to America's original oil-producing boom towns to trace the history of "rock oil" and examine relics and remnants of equipment and transport.

Streever has a nice touch. He variously makes you think and smile. Sometimes he achieves both at the same time.

Only in the chapter on the development of thermonuclear weapons does the book's tone change. The writing shifts from the keen and refreshing on display elsewhere to the visceral and angry.

Streever repeatedly vilifies American physicist Edward Teller, a member of the Manhattan Project that built the first atomic bomb, and the principal architect of the more powerful hydrogen bomb.

Teller's abortive early 1960s plan to set off a hydrogen bomb below the tundra of northwest Alaska's Cape Thompson in order to create an instant, and highly radioactive, harbour and channel to the Chukchi Sea is scathingly rendered. (The locals launched a successful political and PR campaign that kiboshed the plan.)

In Streever's telling, Teller comes off as an intellectually gifted maniac and moral idiot.

Streever is, by turns, lucid, witty and polemical. But he's ever hugely observant -- of both the natural world and himself.

And, where appropriate, his writing's intensity mirrors that of his subject matter.

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2013 J7

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