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The Myth of Solid Ground 

On The Science, Pseudoscience and Lunatic Logic of Earthquake Prediction

Wednesday, Apr 7 1999
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Because of this, geology is necessarily an intuitive discipline, in which science often merges with what, in Annals of the Former World, his geologic history of North America, John McPhee refers to as "geopoetry" -- as in "where gaps exist among the facts of geology the space between is often filled with things 'geopoetical.'" It's an idea that fascinates me, that seems, somehow, at the heart of the entire endeavor, regardless of which side you're on. Surely, geopoetry accounts for the current defining paradigm of plate tectonics; what else could it be besides a pure piece of poetry to imagine the Earth as a loose collection of floating land masses, a dreamscape of rock and magma that connects and splits apart and reconnects with stately elegance, both solid and fluid at once? The same could be said for deep time, whose incomprehensible, even terrifying distances are transformed by geopoetry, by the notion that, as one scientist notes in Annals of the Former World, "If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever." With that as a starting point, it may be the ultimate piece of geopoetry to imagine a system in which earthquakes can be predicted, in which there is a human logic to the geologic immensity, a way, in other words, to telescope time.

In some sense, I suppose, it all boils down to cosmology, to a world-view that can encompass a wide range of contradictions -- science vs. folklore, fact opposed to intuition, the dichotomy between geologic chronology and the span of a human life. For early primitive societies, the solution was to construct a mythology in which the Earth sat on the back of a giant animal whose movements made it shake, and in some ways, we're not so far removed from that. Earthquakes, after all, shatter what may be our most widely held illusion -- that of solid ground. They frighten us, they undermine our assumptions, they make us long for the security of knowing, if only for a moment, the elusive feeling of control. That's as true of the modern seismological community, with its calm and calculated logic, as it was of, say, William Money, an early Los Angeles eccentric who, according to Philip L. Fradkin's study of earthquake culture, Magnitude 8, "foretold in the third quarter of the 19th century the coming of comets, earthquakes, and the fiery destruction of San Francisco" -- a city Money hated so much he imagined it swept from the earth. And it's true also of the amorphous subculture of the earthquake predictors, who, in some sense, have stumbled upon a form of cultural plate tectonics, where the fault line traces the slow but steady slippage between the quest for knowledge and the age-old search for belief.

It's tempting to dismiss this as the kind of magical thinking we should have left behind long ago. Yet there's something compelling about the way it seeks to ascribe meaning to what geology alone might tell us are just the unexplained (and possibly unexplainable) movements of the earth. At its core resides the notion that earthquakes can be read, and that by these readings we might locate ourselves inside a system we can comprehend. It's this notion that is responsible for the amorphous concept of "earthquake weather"; for a long time, Southern California's earthquake weather was thought to be muggy, because that's how it was the day of the 1933 Long Beach temblor, but the mythology was revised to mean hot, dry Santa Ana winds in the wake of the 1971 Sylmar quake. Not long after I moved to Los Angeles, someone told me that three hours before a major earthquake, the birds would stop singing and, as at the San Andreas, there would be a profound stillness in the air. To this day, I think of that as a seismic barometer, a private source of reassurance. I don't know whether it works or not, since every temblor I've experienced has arrived at a moment of inattention, but I'm willing to suspend my disbelief. I look for signs. We all look for signs.

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THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIELD OFFICE OF THE UNITED States Geological Survey is located in Pasadena, at the fringe of the Caltech campus, in a yellow two-story colonial with black shutters that would not have been out of place on the set of It's a Wonderful Life. It's an unimposing structure, a little worn around the edges, like a well-lived-in family home. On the front lawn, a subtle marker identifies the building, while inside there's a comfortable clutter, a feeling of work in process. Nowhere do you see any of the austere sterility popular culture associates with "science" -- no lab-coated technicians, no hushed technical language, no experiments dealing with problems no layperson can understand. Across the street, in Caltech's Seeley G. Mudd Building of Geophysics and Planetary Science (or South Mudd, as it's commonly known), the lobby houses an Earthquake Exhibit Center, with a drum-recorder seismograph and a computer console featuring a map of California that tracks every temblor in the region over magnitude 0.1, going back several weeks. Here, however, the only openly visible display is the collection of cartoons and tabloid clippings on the door of Linda Curtis' office, among them a Weekly World News front page bearing a "photograph" of the devil as he emerges from a long tear in a San Fernando Valley street in the aftermath of the Northridge quake.

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