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Science
THE MATERIAL WORLD
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Thursday 16:30-17:00
Quentin Cooper reports on developments across the sciences. Each week scientists describe their work, conveying the excitement they feel for their research projects.
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LISTEN AGAINListen 30 min
Listen to 20 November 2008
PRESENTER
QUENTIN COOPER
Quentin Cooper
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Thursday 20 November 2008
Quentin and Etna
Quentin Cooper near the smoking summit of Etna (Photo Martin Redfern)

During the Autumn Material World is broadcasting programmes made in association with the Open University.

For more information about this programme, click here Material World/Open University

Programme Two: Mount Etna

Quentin Cooper joins Open University scientists on Mt Etna in Sicily who have been monitoring Europe’s most active volcano for more than 30 years.

Mt Etna in Sicily is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and certainly in Europe.

In Greek mythology, Vulcan's forge lay beneath it and in Homer's Odyssey, Etna was the home of the Cyclops who threw rocks at Ulysses as he escaped to his ship.

The philosopher Empedocles, now celebrated as the first known volcanologist, studied Etna around 440 BC and legend has it that he met his death leaping or falling into the crater.

Dr John Murray of the Open University has been coming here for 39 years, regularly monitoring the activity and surveying the changing mountain in detail for 33 of those years.

He has come to know how it swells and subsides as it erupts and is getting closer to being able to predict those eruptions.

He has found Etna to be a complex volcano with multiple craters around the summit and fissures down the flanks through which it sometimes erupts.

Quentin Cooper joins Dr Murray and his team of student volunteers on a field trip.

They visit a fissure on the eastern flank which has been erupting since May 2008 and which is still slowly producing lava along an underground tube.

Then they climb to the summit craters, sometimes the site of fire fountains of lava, and constantly emitting sulphurous fumes and steam.

Mt Etna is subject to the twin forces of volcanism and gravity.

The 3,340 metre summit never stays at the same height the long.  It rises and falls like the chest of a sleeping dragon.  Recently, it was falling, even though molten magma was rising within it.  Gravity was forcing the mountain to spread like a jelly and the eruption eventually emerged on the flank.

During the 1980s, the eastern flank started subsiding at an alarming rate and there were fears of a catastrophic collapse which could have threatened a million people living below.  If a giant landslide had reached the sea it could have resulted in a tsunami around the Mediterranean.

The slope now seems to have stabilised, but Etna is not a tame volcano and only through long-term monitoring will scientists understand its ways.

Next week understanding Titan via Chesil Beach...
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