On May 8, 1902, Martinique's Mount Pelée exploded, sending a cloud of superheated steam and volcanic gas rushing toward the coastal city of St. Pierre. Twenty-six thousand people lived there. Nearly all died. The reports that reached the U.S. were cataclysmic, and so a small number of researchers — including a geologist named Thomas Jaggar — immediately left for the Caribbean.

The subject of "The Last Volcano: A Man, a Romance, and the Quest to Understand Nature's Most Magnificent Fury" is not a mountain but a man — Jaggar, flawed and full of contradictions.

As a Harvard undergraduate, Jaggar was a hard worker but earned undistinguished grades. He loved to travel and chased volcanic eruptions around the globe — from Vesuvius to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to Japan — but thanks to the slow travel of the early 20th century, he often arrived days or weeks after the action had ended. He was raised by a loving family, but repeatedly abandoned his own wife and children to pursue his research and wanderlust. As depicted by Dvorak, he's slightly hapless and more than a little selfish.

His qualities as a scientist aren't immediately obvious, either. Dvorak isn't prone to hyperbole. His Jaggar is a foot soldier in the onward march of geology — a scrupulous note taker and observer — rather than a big-idea revolutionary. But a body of achievements takes shape anyway. Over the course of his career, Jaggar made essential contributions to the prediction of eruptions and tsunamis using seismographs, took some of the most accurate early measurements of the temperature of lava and composition of volcanic gases and helped found Hawai's Volcanoes National Park.

He leaves an impression almost in spite of himself. The Jaggar of "The Last Volcano" is slow-moving but methodical, often stymied in the short term but effective over the course of a lifetime, restless but not explosive — a man who resembles not the powerful, sweeping blast from Mount Pelée but the creeping lava flow from his beloved Mauna Loa. But though he ultimately impresses, he does not warm. The man is less than monumental; even as his accomplishments mount, he fails to impress on a human level.

Happily, "The Last Volcano" picks up heat in its depiction of the science itself and the community that made advancements in it. Dvorak layers mini-portraits of other scientists, travelogues of eruptions and accounts of experiments in chronologically complex strata.

Volcanoes can seem like a distant threat. But Dvorak raises the stakes by examining a wider geologic network of earthquakes and tsunamis — and a human network of scientists who truly saved lives. Their shared passion, and Dvorak's own palpable love for the subject, send up the sparks that Jaggar himself cannot.

Joey McGarvey is a writer and freelance book editor. She lives in St. Paul.