Science or Superstition?

In his exploration of the illusions that allow us to live with blithe indifference in earthquake country, David L. Ulin proves to be one worried Californian. Make that non-native Californian. He isn’t hiding his émigré fears; that is, in fact, the leitmotif that runs through his account of life on the intersection of colliding tectonic plates. He prays in the Red Line subway tunnel, “Please, not here, not now.” Still, skittish as he is, he understands there’s a certain frisson to a magnitude-7 rupture. After exiting the tram at Universal Studio’s earthquake ride, he remarks, “There is no danger, no sense of chaos: in short, no question about how the earthquake ends.” It turns out Ulin is more of a Californian than he at first leads you to believe.

To us natives, earthquakes are like the weather, commonplace and equally unpredictable. Temblors matter only when they happen. To Ulin, and other non-natives like him, ground movement is a trigger for “panic . . . unbearable anticipation . . . dread and hope . . .” There is a clear split here, haves and have-nots, fear or don’t fear earthquakes. If you’ve got the jitters, then you’re apt, as Ulin is, to delve into the murky realm — he himself calls it “sham or self-aggrandizement or delusion” — of earthquake prediction. (Ulin got on this grail, it should be said, while doing a story for the Weekly.) He describes an openness to the predictors, the sensitives, the cloud watchers and the man who feels pain shoot through his ass cheeks, as “a psychic strategy that, by allowing us for a moment to mitigate our uncertainty, provides an emotional barrier against the impermanence of life along the fault.” Of course, as Ulin makes clear, the science of seismology provides a similar shield, if you’re looking for the Cartesian brand of assurance.

When Ulin is digging through hundreds of crank predictions, known as the X-files, faxed and mailed to the Southern California field offices of the United States Geological Survey, he remarks “just how fleeting is our sense of solid ground.” He says this without a trace of facetiousness, and it is here you begin to wish he were on more of a romp than an earnest consideration of the mindset of these savants, who have either various aches and pains or briefcases full of maps, diagrams, photographs that point to the next fault-line break. It’s not that they need to be thoroughly debunked; it’s that these precogs come off as dull, and wearying. They are hardly shaking up the halls of science, and the mere fact that they are more worried than the rest of us (if they are genuinely worried at all) seems obvious, and hardly worth repeating. But then Ulin confesses, contrary to his own greater sense of empiricism, his and his (pregnant) wife’s premonitions (he scores poorly; his wife goes three for three). All of which, I suppose, means that some of us think we’re on more solid ground than others.

Which brings us to the scientists, whom Ulin clearly admires. One of them, Kerry Sieh, a path-breaking Caltech seismologist, makes the most eloquent remark in the book. Sieh recalls a line from 19th-century historian Henry Adams, “Order is the dream of man, and chaos is the rule of nature.” How true. Earthquakes seem to be a bit of the Earth’s magnificent inscrutability. For all the powerful insights summarized by plate tectonics, geologists, seismologists and geophysicists are powerless to explain the exact origin of an earthquake or predict the occurrence of another. No one seems even close, Ulin reports. Theory after hopeful theory crumbles, as the evidence comes in. Usually this evidence consists of silence: The Earth just won’t conform and provide the facts to fit the hypothesis. As Ulin says, earthquake science operates on “some constantly shifting middle ground between research and folklore, legend and fact.”

He says so not to discredit the pursuit of scientific understanding, or to elevate the status of the clairvoyants. Instead, after traipsing around the state, interrogating USGS personnel, standing on faults, rooting through dense monographs, deciphering handwritten prognostications, Ulin is left in the thrall of the San Andreas Fault itself, less as a scientific mystery that may never be unraveled and more as a marker for “the sweep of time, of eternity.” A generous sentiment, but little comfort if you’re fretting about the big one.

THE MYTH OF SOLID GROUND: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith | By DAVID L. ULIN | Viking 290 pages | $25 hardcover


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