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Prof. Deborah Coen’s new book examines the history of earthquake observation

In her new book, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter, Prof. Deborah Coen examines the history of earthquakes and how seismology grew into a field of scientific research. Before there were precision instruments for measuring earthquakes, scientists relied on eyewitness accounts, letters, and literature to gauge the severity and impact of seismic waves. Below, Prof. Coen answers questions about her research and the ways that scientific thinking about earthquakes has changed over time.

How did you come to study this intersecting area of science and history?
This project started when I became interested in the metaphor of an intellectual earthquake—for example, describing an “earth-shaking” idea and its impact. In the process of tracing the use of this terminology, I discovered that the science of earthquakes looked nothing like I expected. We’re used to hearing about seismology in terms of seismographs and other precise instruments that provide objective data. But for the first several decades that these instruments were in use, they were jokes, widely known to be less reliable than eyewitness accounts.

In 2007, I learned about Defining Wisdom, a project bringing together young scholars from all disciplines to explore the meaning of “wisdom.” In response to their call for proposals, I started developing this concept—that the human response to earthquakes was both an empirical field of study and a way of thinking about the historical relationship between expertise and common sense. From there, my book began to take shape.

Can you talk about the “seismic commentators” whom you encountered in your research?
Seismic commentators were essential to the study of earthquakes in the 19th century. Both in response to scientists’ queries and in their own journals and correspondence, many people documented their first-hand experiences during earthquakes. These “felt reports,” as the genre was known, came from both the general public and well-known writers, some of whom even sought out earthquake experiences far from home. Witnessing an earthquake was something of a rite of passage for 19th-century naturalists like Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, and William James. But accounts also came from more literary writers, like Charles Dickens, Karl Kraus, and Mark Twain. Here is Twain on the San Francisco earthquake of 1865:

“I will set it down here as a maxim that the operations of the human intellect are much accelerated by an earthquake. Usually I do not think rapidly—but I did upon this occasion. I thought rapidly, vividly, and distinctly. With the first shock of the five, I thought—‘I recognize that motion—this is an earthquake.’ With the second, I thought, ‘What a luxury this will be for the morning papers.’ With the third shock, I thought, ‘Well, my boy, you had better be getting out of this.’ Each of these thoughts was only the hundredth part of a second in passing through my mind. There is no incentive to rapid reasoning like an earthquake.”

Were there any women among the seismic commentators?
Women were disproportionately well represented among those who responded to scientists’ calls for earthquake reports. They often proved to be excellent observers, but you wouldn’t recognize any of them by name. But what’s interesting and what I suggest in my book, is that in the 1930s, as felt reports were being phased out of seismology, at the same time, accounts of disaster were becoming part of modernist literature—and this kind of disaster narrative was usually gendered male. I did come across one really interesting female writer, though. Here is Gertrude Atherton’s account of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 in her novel The Sisters-in-Law (1921):

“Alexina was a child of California and knew what was coming. She barely had time to brace herself when she saw the sleeping city jar as if struck by a sudden squall, and with the invisible storm came a loud menacing roar of imprisoned forces making a concerted rush for freedom. She threw her arms about one of the trees, but it was bending and groaning with an accent of fear, a tribute it would have scorned to offer the mighty winds of the Pacific. Alexina sprang clear of it and unable to keep her feet sat down on the bouncing earth. Then she remembered that it was a rigid convention among real Californians to treat an earthquake as a joke, and began to laugh. There was nothing hysterical in this perfunctory tribute to the lesser tradition and it immediately restored her courage. Moreover, the curiosity she felt for all phases of life, psychical and physical, and her naïve delight in everything that savored of experience, caused her to stare down upon the city now tossing and heaving like the sea in a hurricane, with an almost impersonal interest.”

In today’s world of 24-hour news cycles and social media, is the tradition of eyewitness storytellers experiencing a revival?
Today’s media landscape certainly offers opportunity for seismologists to learn from the general public’s experiences. We are all overloaded with information, which begs the question: How might scientists put that data to use? For example, since the late 1990s, Americans have been contributing to earthquake research through a website of the United States Geological Survey called “Did You Feel It.” However, this site only accepts a very narrow slice of experiences—date, time, location, and yes or no questions—that are easily fed into an algorithm. There are also various citizen science initiatives out there, but most don’t seem to me to be particularly creative; they’re not really pushing the limits of what we can learn from locals about their environments. In the 19th century, scientists were collecting free-form letters and studying human perspectives that looked—to us today—nothing like scientific evidence. Today, scientists working with human data are very much on the margins of earthquake research. I’d love to learn more about how disaster scientists today are integrating social media buzz into their research.

Though your research is specific to earthquakes, are you also interested in other natural disasters and the way that they have been documented over time? In particular, what are your thoughts on Hurricane Sandy?
My hope is that other historians will apply my methods to other disaster sciences, such as epidemiology and climatology. Like seismology, those sciences were approached more holistically in the 19th century, with more interest and emphasis on gathering the human perspectives. In the 20th century, the social experience was much more removed from scientific research. But in climate science today, we see that organizations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are hiring social scientists to address questions about the human impact—how is climate change going to change our lives? How can we adapt? 

So with an event like Hurricane Sandy, it is apparent that these are critical questions. If we want to predict the impacts of disasters like this in the future, we’ll need to know more not only about the technology of flood prevention, but also about local cultures. Adaptation to a changing climate needs to be treated as a problem that is social as well as technical. Again, with social media and the degree of connectedness that exists today, there is an abundance of information available for scientists who are studying and planning for natural disasters.