Wednesday, 3 May 2006

Doing the Guest Appearance Thing

Doug Pascover, the major domo of Waking Ambrose, asked me if I would contribute a definition (hyperthermia). Which I did. Waking Ambrose is a great site for the student of the sardonic, and well worth a visit.

I couldn't resist having a go at another word that Doug used on the Waking Ambrose page, coopetition.

Monday, 1 May 2006

Life on a Fault Line

I’ve spent most of the last two weeks back at my home base of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, overseeing the installation of a major piece of equipment (a scanning electron microscope) and tending to other bits of science business. While I was there, Maine was a fairly pleasant place to be. It refrained from snowing, the daffodils were making their first tentative appearance, and the blackflies had not yet driven everybody back indoors. The winter had been warm (by Maine standards) and dry, so the usual knee-deep mires masquerading as driveways, roadsides (sidewalks? you gotta be kidding), and parking lots weren’t there; I could actually walk places without getting slimed.

This is not normal, and it had the natives in a fret. Mainers are used to their seasons: mud (April), blackfly (May), mosquito (June-August), yellowjacket (September), leaf (October), and winter (November-March, if you’re lucky). No mud in April may mean dry wells in August, or, worse, rain and fog in August, both of which will keep the tourists, who visit during what the rest of the Northern Hemisphere calls “summer”, away. And since the state that proclaims itself “The Way Life Should Be” has no industry to speak of, and has the third-lowest per-capita investment in research and development of all the fifty U.S. states, Maine needs healthy tourists, even more than it needs healthy lobster. (There is no research money available to investigate what keeps lobster healthy, of course, even after they all died in western Long Island Sound in 1999.) The way petroleum fuel prices are at the moment, maybe nobody will visit Maine this August, and the entire state will be applying for disaster relief in October.

About the only disaster not likely to hit Maine anytime soon is a major earthquake. Unlike sunny, warm, wealthy California. Where, at least in Berkeley where I’m staying, the daffodils had come and gone by February. I flew in to Oakland the other day and almost immediately drove to Bodega Bay, where there is a prominent marine biology research laboratory, and helped introduce a class of first-year students from the brand-new Merced campus of the University of California to the marine environment. On a windy Saturday afternoon, we stood on a rocky point of land with a grand view of the shallow harbor that is Bodega Bay. Between us and the far shore of the Bay lay the famous San Andreas Fault. Our piece of land, not too terribly long ago, had been part of Los Angeles, and it was scuttling along in the general direction of Alaska. In 1906, during the Great San Francisco Earthquake, it had moved, in one jump, 15 feet closer to Anchorage.

The Great San Francisco Earthquake was a tale for which the world was not yet prepared. Certainly San Francisco, and other cities and towns along the San Andreas Fault, weren’t prepared for it. In 1906, few Californians had any idea that they were living in an earthquake zone, and fewer still had any idea what that meant or what to do about it. In fact, studies conducted in the years immediately after the 1906 earthquake established, for the first time, that earthquakes were caused by pieces of the earth’s surface moving with respect to each other, an idea that came as a nasty surprise to the scientists who had thought the earth’s surface fixed and immovable. It took another sixty years before scientists could agree on a theory, plate tectonics, to explain this movement.

Meanwhile, people built large and expensive buildings of unreinforced stone, brick, or concrete, lit and heated mostly by open fires. The San Francisco fire chief argued in 1905 for a high-pressure water system to help fight fires, especially in the event of a big earthquake, but was told the system was too expensive. The San Francisco Fire Department had an expert in the use of dynamite as a means of controlling major fires in cities, but the expert was one of the earthquake’s first casualties, and there wasn’t enough dynamite in stock to meet the need. The other explosives used, including old-fashioned black powder, actually helped spread the flames that destroyed most of the city.

Remarkably, aid reached the stricken areas quickly. Army troops were in San Francisco within hours, to keep order and assist with firefighting and other needs. Within days, food and shelter were dispatched to San Francisco and other hard-hit regions. Few people went hungry, and there were no major disease outbreaks. Rebuilding of San Francisco began almost immediately, though for a time people thought that the less hard-hit cities to the east of San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, would become the main Bay Area metropolises. By the 1920s, though, it was clear that San Francisco would regain its preeminence.

To be sure, the U. S. President in 1906 was Theodore Roosevelt, not George W. Bush …

The day after my visit to Bodega Bay, a Sunday, I attended a service at the fancy church in Berkeley, my spiritual home away from home. The church had sent a relief party to New Orleans, and on this day they were reporting their experiences to the congregation, the dire and the joyful, the litany of slow and unjust official responses to America’s modern-day Noahic deluge, and the scattered tales of courage and progress. A parishioner asked why it was necessary or appropriate to send people to New Orleans when there were plenty of local problems to be addressed. The pastor responded that, having seen what happens when a disaster is compounded by problems of social injustice at both the local and national levels, at both the disaster planning and disaster relief stages, she was motivated to identify and, as much as possible, address those issues in Berkeley.

It was a good answer. A century ago, geological faults were scarcely understood, and much evil resulted from this misunderstanding. We now know much more, and where we apply this knowledge, much evil is averted. It’s significant that the biggest earthquake disaster of modern times, the Indian Ocean quake and tsunami, occurred where the lessons learned, and technologies developed, from studies of geological faults had not been applied. Too expensive – like San Francisco’s high pressure water system in 1905. From San Francisco, and Indonesia, and New Orleans, we should be learning how to avert the evils of human faults …