The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault
Line Between Reason and Faith. David L. Ulin. xiv + 290 pp.
Viking, 2004. $24.95.
My name appears in The Myth of Solid Ground: Author David
Ulin expresses appreciation for my open-mindedness about ideas and
possibilities that are out of the mainstream. He might not
appreciate quite as much one of my favorite sayings—one that
comes to mind reading his book: You don't want to be so open-minded
that your brains fall out.
One doesn't get very far into the text before realizing that this
is, in fact, a possibility. In the opening pages, Ulin describes his
experiences the first time he felt an earthquake. The reader soon
learns, however, that that particular earthquake never really
happened. Fantasy and reality continue to blur seamlessly, along
with other things, as one reads further: Ulin is talking about
philosophy one second, science the next; science one second,
pseudoscience and mythology the next.
The main premise of this loosely woven book appears to be that it is
so unnerving to live in a geologically unsettled place that people
by necessity invoke a fabric of mythology and superstition to cope.
The problem with science, Ulin writes, is that it expresses no point
of view: It deals with the trees rather than the forest.
Californians need a philosophy of
earthquakes—scientific understanding won't do. Such arguments
have an odd ring, to say the least, to the ears of the scientist,
who understands well the scientific "point of view": that
our universe is governed by physical laws, which ultimately explain
everything from the atom to the cell to the 1906 San Francisco
earthquake. That the universe is sometimes unpredictable does not
mean that it is not fundamentally ordered.
One realizes just how antithetical Ulin's views are to those of
scientists when he tells us that the person in the story with whom
he feels the greatest sense of kinship is "maverick
seismologist" Jim Berkland, who has achieved a certain measure
of fame by promulgating myths and junk science—maintaining,
for example, that animals are able to sense impending earthquakes.
Seismologist Lucy Jones suggests (sensibly) that the appeal of
Berkland and his ilk lies in their claim that they can erase the
terrifying element of uncertainty about earthquakes and reintroduce
some sense of control. But Ulin doesn't buy this: It isn't about
control, he says, it's all about point of view—it's
all about philosophical paradigm.
And yet, I and most of my fellow Californians—my neighbors and
friends, people from all walks of life—have, I believe, a very
workable paradigm, and it is nothing like the one that Ulin
describes. Being sensible adults, we accept earthquake hazard as
part and parcel of life in California. We understand that no place
on Earth is free from natural disasters, and we like living here
enough to accept the occasional rude intrusion of an earthquake. We
know that living in earthquake country is not irrational if
earthquake country and we ourselves are well prepared, so we have
survival kits and bottled water, we strap our water heaters to the
walls, and so forth.
There is little if anything in The Myth of Solid Ground to
appeal to the educated, scientifically inclined reader, who may
occasionally find the book entertaining but will probably more often
find it irritating. The volume is without question a deeply personal
expression of one man's impression of the natural world. Ulin lays
out the thought processes of those Californians who do gravitate
toward the Berklands of the world rather than to the explanations
offered by serious scientists. If you have ever wondered, What are
these people thinking, this book will provide some answers.
It is an interesting little journey into the stratosphere: If you
choose to get on board, just remember to fasten your seat belt.
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