By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
I finish the drive in a weird state of heightened awareness, registering every bump in the road, every gust of wind. Even after I get home, the sensation lingers, and I walk from room to room making sure cabinets are closed, and moving anything that looks like it could fall on my sleeping children's heads. On some level, I know, this is ridiculous, a classic case of the power of suggestion overwhelming the power of rational thought. Yet the edge I'm feeling grows more acute when I check my e-mail and find the latest update from Charlotte King, which describes "Heart pain . . . on and off the last few hours," a precursor (or so she says) to activity in Yucca Valley, Landers or Big Bear. "Whatever is happening that I am picking up," King writes, "will be happening in less than 12-72 hours . . . more likely 12-24 hours. We are looking at a moderate size event 4.0-4.6+." The message seems to confirm Berkland's prediction, which, in turn, only solidifies my own aura of belief. It doesn't matter whether all this is the ã product of magical thinking; it doesn't even matter whether it's true or not, just that it might be, that there might be some possibility of control. Such a state brings with it a certain clarity, and in that moment I begin to see how it might feel to be a predictor myself. The whole thing reminds me of Linda Curtis' story about calling her own small earthquake: "One morning," she told me, "I said to myself, 'Next Tuesday, there'll be a 3.5 in Riverside' -- and there was. I was so ecstatic, but I knew it was just random luck." Curtis, no doubt, is right about that, although what she calls luck I might prefer to call faith. Even so, I wonder, when does luck start to inform scientific practice? How far can you take this? How deep does it go?
EIGHT DAYS LATER, I'M STILL ASKING myself the same questions, considering the extent to which prediction is a state of mind. Berkland's Los Angeles window has passed without incident, leaving me to contemplate his methods, to ponder the point at which logic yields to desire. Is it enough that he called the Berkeley quake, or is there less to this than meets the eye? I keep thinking about that as I drive past the USGS office and park near Caltech, where I'm to meet Zhonghao Shou, a 60-year-old Chinese former chemist who, for the last nine years, has predicted earthquakes by studying the clouds.
After locking the car, I walk the half block back to campus. Along the way, I notice someone watching me from the driver's seat of a red convertible. At first, I don't think much about it, but then I notice that it's Linda Curtis, the top half of her face obscured by black sunglasses, the lower half split into a grin.
"Hey," she says. "I was going to call you. There's something I wanted to tell you, but now I forget what it is." She takes in my notebook and legal pad, sees the tape recorder in my pocket. "You here to interview somebody?"
"Yeah," I say. "Zhonghao Shou."
"Oh," she laughs. "I think it was about him. He's been hanging around."
I smile at the coincidence, but Curtis has nothing else to tell me, and after a moment she continues on her way. Still, as I walk to the intersection where Shou waits with his daughter Wenying, a Caltech Ph.D. candidate in biology who acts as his combination translator-advocate, I'm struck again by the circularity of earthquake prediction, the way I keep stumbling across all these odd associations. Berkland's unfulfilled prediction aside, it's hard not to feel the pull of synchronicity, as if it were its own gravitational field. More than anything, I think, this explains the draw of the predictors, the way that even in the absence of concrete evidence, there is at least the sense that they have tapped into a subterranean psychic plane, a set of not-quite-rational connections that appear more real each time another one comes up.
On the surface, Zhonghao Shou seems like nothing if not a part of that, a man known around the USGS field office as "Cloud Man." Yet in person, there's something sober about him, something distinguished; neat, subdued and highly rational, he's the very opposite of what you'd expect. Dressed in a sweater vest, rugby shirt, black loafers and pressed blue jeans, he has come prepared to make a case for cloud prediction, bringing a sheaf of documents, graphs, diagrams -- even statistical analyses that interpret his forecasts in terms of probabilities -- all neatly typed or written out in a calligrapher's hand. As we walk across the campus, I'm struck by the fact that with his thinning hair and long, sleepy face, he could pass for a professor, and when, through his daughter, he begins to discuss his theories, the impression only grows. Shou's charts and explanations, after all, are framed in his own hybrid form of scientific jargon, which may or may not lend them an air of credibility, but provides a vivid insight into how he sees himself, as a researcher, not some odd fringe enthusiast, seeking purchase on a territory of which Caltech is the absolute epicenter. This, of course, is both the burden and the calling of every dedicated earthquake predictor.
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