Loading...

The Myth of Solid Ground 

On The Science, Pseudoscience and Lunatic Logic of Earthquake Prediction

Wednesday, Apr 7 1999
Comments

Page 8 of 12

Then, two nights before the close of Berkland's window, I'm driving home along the broad rolling curves of Sunset Boulevard, heading east through Beverly Hills on my way to West Hollywood. On the radio, R.E.M.'s "Man on the Moon" plays like a soundtrack, and as I stare at the office towers silhouetted against the edge of the Strip, I start to think about the fault that runs beneath this pavement, wondering what would happen if it slipped. Cresting the small hill at Doheny, I catch sight of the moon, hanging fat as a cocktail onion, low and close in the sky. It's so big it fills my entire windshield, and for a moment, I can almost see Berkland's theory in action, see the moon in the closest part of its orbit, exerting its tidal pull. Meanwhile, "Man on the Moon" fades into a series of tight, martial drum rolls, and Michael Stipe starts singing, "That's great, it starts with an earthquake" -- the first line of "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." All of a sudden, I feel like a trap door has opened up inside me, like I've been given a set of signs. I look around: Life goes on as normal. Club kids hang out in front of the Rainbow and the Roxy, and traffic moves past at a crawl. But in my head, it's as if reality itself has started to slip, as if somewhere out on Sunset, I've stumbled across a strange, intuitive kind of logic, and what it's telling me is that tonight's the night.

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.

Related Stories

  • Warning, Warning

    The U.S. Geological Survey has an amazing earthquake-warning system, and it works. The problem is, the system is still a prototype, and only a precious few people and institutions are privy to the warnings. The issue is cash. Experts say it will take a $38 million upfront investment and $16...
  • Beer Festivals 3

    Nothing says summer in Southern California like unlimited beer outside on a sunny day. If you're new to craft beer, attending a festival is the perfect way to access many different breweries and styles in one place. Plus food to keep you grounded and music to keep you occupied.  Every...
  • Hollywood's Tax Win

    Jerry Brown, California's skin-flint governor, acceded Wednesday to an increase in the film tax credit to $330 million. Brown is a well-known skeptic of Hollywood subsidies, but the combined forces of organized labor, multinational entertainment conglomerates, and B-list celebrities proved too powerful to resist. The industry didn't get the $400...
  • We Wish We All Could Be Caprice's Kind of California Girl

    “This is myself with my best friend at the time, frying my skin," says the across-the-pond celebrity Caprice Bourret while looking at old photos, nibbling a scone at high tea at the Culver Hotel. "I used to be such a California girl. I used to fry. Hawaiian Tropic, no sunscreen at all."...
  • Eco Cheap

    Los Angeles has some of the highest rents in the nation, and our worst-in-America roads cost us dearly when it comes to wear and tear on our vehicles. But there's one thing we spend less on: Energy. Comparatively, whether we're talking about electricity or natural gas, we don't use that much. And that means...

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.

Related Content

Now Trending

  • L.A. Porn Production Shuts Down Over HIV Report

    The adult video industry's trade group today called for a moratorium on production after a performer might have tested positive for HIV. The Los Angeles-based Free Speech Coalition said in a statement that one of the facilities used by porn stars under the industry's voluntary, twice-a-month STD testing protocol "reported...
  • Woman Fatally Struck by Vehicle at Burning Man

    A woman was fatally struck by a vehicle at Burning Man today, organizers said. The Pershing County Sheriff’s Office in Nevada identified the deceased as 29-year-old Alicia Louise Cipicchio of Jackson, Wyoming. Burning Man spokesman Jim Graham said she fell under a bus or "large vehicle" that was carrying participants early today. See...
  • Venice Boardwalk Beat-Down Caught on Video

    A brutal beating next to the Venice boardwalk this week was captured on video (on the next page). Los Angeles Police Department detectives are asking for your help in tracking down not only the suspect, but the victim, who "we haven't been able to locate," Officer Nuria Venegas told us...
Los Angeles Concert Tickets