Friday, January 4, 2013

Deborah R. Coen's "The Earthquake Observers"

Deborah R. Coen is assistant professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter, and reported the following:
Perhaps you’ve read about the six Italian seismologists who were found guilty of manslaughter this fall for failing to predict the deadly 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila. If so, you may have gathered that seismologists today have something of a communication problem. Indeed, some of them have admitted that they are hard-pressed to communicate seismic risk in terms that the public will understand and act on. My book is about a time before that barrier arose. It’s about seismology’s origins as (what we would call) a “citizen science.” On page 99, we find Swiss citizens reporting to scientists about their experiences of ground tremors in 1885 and 1908. One records his impression that “under his feet a rockslide must be taking place.” Another recalls having thought: “If Switzerland were in Italy, one would say that this is an earthquake.” We then learn something about how scientists made use of these reports to understand the nature of seismic phenomena. That “rockslide,” for instance, is interpreted as a subterranean collapse, triggered by movement along a neighboring fault line. In short, page 99 neatly encapsulates two of the book’s central themes: how the experiences of ordinary people—in rather extraordinary situations—were transformed into scientific evidence; and how local events were pieced together to understand planetary processes. If you want to see how this nineteenth-century science has influenced seismology today, take a look at the United States Geological Survey’s website, Did You Feel It?.
Learn more about The Earthquake Observers at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue