The Myth of Solid Ground 

On The Science, Pseudoscience and Lunatic Logic of Earthquake Prediction

Wednesday, Apr 7 1999

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.

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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.

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