Not even illness could keep me this weekend from devouring the remaining half of The Earthquake Observers, sucked in as I was by its winning combination of an inherently interesting topic and the atmosphere of European modernism that pervaded most of the work.* I was especially fascinated by Coen’s discussion of various scientists’ late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century attempts to form something of a universal catalogue of seismic activity, to “be perfected from year to year, [and] become the fundamental repertory of the entire seismological science of the future.” But unsurprisingly, this aspiration was short-lived, given the number of qualifying occurrences in even one year, for just one country or region. As one sponsor noted, once it had become possible to record “macroseismic and microseismic observations… on the surface of the globe with the necessary fullness of detail and generality, the work of the annual global catalog will become completely unrealizable; the central office will be literally overwhelmed… can one imagine the International Meteorological Association publishing an annual catalog of rainfall on the surface of the globe?”**
The enchantment here for me was the fact that this endeavor, and the resigned reactions to its impossibility, seem as if they could have come straight out of Borges, a natural-sciences add-on to “On Exactitude in Science,” or “The Library of Babel,” maybe even “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” For all we know (Coen devotes only a couple of pages to the wished-for catalogue), the project may have driven some of its real-life booster-creators to obsession or worse, even after its necessary sponsors and support staff had withdrawn under the pressures of reality and the ever-increasing numbers of events that transcended human abilities to pin them down in any meaningful way. Given our contemporary technologies and their superhuman recording and processing abilities, maybe such an undertaking is more achievable than ever before– but, thanks to the natural world’s wonderful ability to slip out of our grasp via the masterfully unseen cracks it’s created, I’ll place my bet on its never happening.
Even though this aspect of seismology seems still doomed to failure, the way in which the science has always been and still is dependent on “lay” observers may be one of the reasons I’m such a fan.*** Indeed, I especially appreciated Coen’s pointing out of the not-just-science-benefitting ways in which this participatory model might (have) enhance(d) the lives of those who go in for observation of the earth’s motions. Including the entirety of one woman’s letter to geologist Hans Schardt as an example, Coen notes that talking to people about what they experienced during a bout of shaking or shifting “was a social opportunity, particularly for those living in solitude… [within] the atomization of modern society,… [it] offered a welcome excuse to penetrate the social walls that separated neighbors from each other.”**** Such an aim never was part of “pure science”– but if one of its branches not only benefits from, but also bestows boons upon, the people of all sorts working to further it, I’ll call that a win, even if the universal knowledge we like to believe is such an unalloyed grand thing never materializes.
* N.b., it also continued to feed my need for modernist– or in this case, neo-modernist, as I’ll call it– literature, as I also swallowed whole W.G. Sebald’s excellent set of essays, A Place in the Country.
**Deborah R. Coen, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 175, 177.
*** In my earthquake-zone-dwelling days, I would get stupidly excited and grateful any time I had even the most minutely plausible opportunity to fill in information on the U.S. Geological Survey’s “Did You Feel It?” website.
**** Coen, 94.
I mentioned not too long ago that I thought Diane Ackerman had a tendency in A Natural History of the Senses to make too-quick assumptions about general human feelings vis-à-vis the environment and its many phenomena– and I illustrated my discomfort by citing her assertion that “we” associate winds with destruction. Well, the following has nothing to do, really, with warnings to authors about making more humble characterizations– but it does have to do with wind, and with some fun poked at bygone naturalists with a tendency to exaggeration. Behold, some satire from Mark Twain, directed at popular earthquake reporting and forecasting:
Oct. 22–Light winds, perhaps. If they blow, it will be from the “east’ard, or the west’ard, or the suth’ard,” or from some general direction approximating more or less to these points of the compass or otherwise. Winds are uncertain–more especially when they blow from whence they cometh and whither they listeth. N.B.–Such is the nature of winds.*
I’m not sure why I almost choked on my roll at “Such is the nature of winds”– but that stifled chuckle was soon followed by another when reading just a few sentences later “Oct. 26–Considerable phenomenal atmospheric foolishness.”
This quotation is featured in a chapter on earthquake-centered humor in Deborah R. Coen’s book, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter. I’ve long been fascinated by earthquakes, to the point of being so charmed and surprised to find myself in one for the first time that I didn’t even think of moving to safety until the madness had already passed. (Sometimes, as in this case, the stupid get very, very lucky; that one came in somewhere in the middle range of the magnitude scale.) And so, from the start, I knew that the information in this book could even be presented in less-than-stellar style, and I wouldn’t really mind. But Coen’s scholarly exposition makes good use of humor and very human (i.e., quirky, limited, or otherwise engagingly foible-laden) assumptions from the history of disaster science. Even the crotchety Karl Kraus makes a noticeable appearance, with, among other things, his commentary on tone’s ability to convince people of all manner of falsities, citing as an example a satire of an earthquake observation accepted as the real thing by a major press.**
I’m not even halfway through this exploration of how earthquake science developed in tandem with the popular press and scientific practice and discourse as a whole– but if the rest of the book is as thick with lovely linguistic nuggets from long-gone scientists and commentators as it has been thus far,*** the rest of this sunny weekend may just be spent devouring it whole.
* Cited in Deborah R. Coen, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 58.
** I’ve long been meaning to read Kraus via more than secondary sources; now I’m doubly determined to see what he had to say about the “fake news” of his own time, and whether it might help us understand why so many people, in a day at least technologically different from his own, are still so willing to be swindled by what would seem to be obvious misinformation– or, as some might call it in certain circumstances, propaganda or ideology. Another nugget of Kraus-wisdom Coen offers us sounds like it could be a condemnation of a sizable chunk of contemporary social media users: “The idiocy that would never have thought of emerging from its life in private has discovered an opportunity for immortality; banality has been lured out of its hiding place; average humanity has been hauled out in triumph. A consuming greed to be named has taken hold of the Mr. Nobodies.” (Coen, 67.) Kraus was no friend to the average human being– but behind the sneer is nothing other than a more detailed version of the truth-kernel expressed in (what may not have actually been) Andy Warhol’s dictum, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
*** e.g., describing Iceland as one “of the earth’s great safety-valves,” or the way in which false reports were received as evidence of “the heartlessness of a belief that has been disappointed” (that latter quote coming from Kraus again). ibid., 49, 66.