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Epicenter of Cool

An earthquake in Los Angeles just isn’t an earthquake until Dr. Kate says it is. Kate Hutton, staff seismologist at Caltech’s Seismological Laboratory, is part of our local quake ritual: Ground shakes. Turn on TV. Wait for Dr. Kate to talk us down.

Was it more rolling or bouncy? Did it last 11.6 seconds or 12? Was it a very typical Imperial Valley swarm? .?.?. Are we all going to die? Hutton strikes just the right balance between calm and caution, comforting us with the familiar lingo of earthquake country: epicenters, Richter scales, magnitudes, P-waves, shallow or deep, moderate or severe, explaining it all — over and over again — as the squiggly needle on the round, white seismograph drum traces out the nervous jitter of the land.

“I so love Kate Hutton,” writes one blogger, “I’d make out with her in a second. There’s NO one else I want to see but her after an earthquake hits.” As fast as she dismantles earthquake myths (no, the Big One will not make California fall into the ocean), others spring up around her — one local radio station believes that whenever Kate Hutton gets a haircut, a quake isn’t far behind.

Currently, Dr. Kate’s hair is a silvery close-crop. But hers is not the only familiar post-trauma talking head. In Los Angeles, we have so many temblors that there is room for two brainy, reassuring woman scientist stars. Dr. Kate Hutton (older, silver hair, glasses, lesbian) appeals to edgier types, to those wanting a little more shock with their aftershocks, while her compatriot, Dr. Lucy Jones (bobbed red hair, glasses, mom), who started making appearances in the late ’80s, speaks to our inner crybaby. During the magnitude-6.1 Joshua Tree quake of ’92, Jones held her toddler on camera. Even her official title is soothing: she’s scientist-in-charge (and statistics expert) of the Southern California Earthquakes Hazards Team at the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena.

Together, Dr. Lucy and Dr. Kate deconstruct our quakes, giving them shape and reason, assigning the beast a name, number and fault.

Dr. Lucy: “Hector Mine was a dream earthquake. All the fun of a magnitude 7.0, without any of the guilt.”

Dr. Kate: “The biggest characteristic of an earthquake catalog is randomness.”

When the weather turns weird and the San Andreas gets twitchy, it’s good to know that though we may not understand why the Apocalypse is (or isn’t) nigh, someone else does.


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