14th Mallet Milne Lecture

Of course, the other major activity earlier this year was the preparation for the 14th Mallet Milne Lecture. Those familiar with this biannual event, organised by the Society for Earthquake and Civil Engineering Dynamics (SECED), will know that the actual lecture is only part of it: it is customary for the lecture to be accompanied by a monograph on the same topic. Which is quite a lot of writing.

The title I chose was “A history of British seismology” – an obvious nod in the direction of Charles Davison’s classic work, “A history of British earthquakes” (Cambridge University Press, 1924). I was thinking that this would be something that would be fairly straightforward to write, but when it came down to it, I was surprised to discover just how much I didn’t know. It was quite an education to research some of the points that I found I knew only partly about. For instance, I knew that claims had been made in the late 1880s that a teleseism had been recorded at Marsden Colliery (near Sunderland), a few years before Rebeur-Paschwitz’s historic redording made at Potsdam. But I never before had really looked at the details; for instance, that the claim was debunked almost immediately by the physicist Alexander Herschel, who went on to design his own seismoscope.

Nor did I know that the word “seismoscope” was coined by the Irish engineer Robert Mallet; indeed, I also found that it was Mallet who coined the word “seismologue” for an earthquake catalogue (see earlier posts).

All in all, it was a bit like doing a second PhD, only having to do it in six months, working only in the evenings and at weekends.

However, it was finished on time, all 150 pages of it. In a departure from past practice, SECED  arranged for it to be published open access in the Bulletin of Earthquake Engineering; it fills an entire issue. So anyone who wants, can download a copy from the Springer web site (http://link.springer.com/journal/10518/11/3/page/1).

The lecture itself took place on 29 May and passed off successfully, with a good audience. A video of it can be watched here: https://vimeo.com/icegroup/review/67311706/64f31d516d

And here is a photo taken just before the lecture – with Andy Mair, Chairman of SECED.



The Book

It’s been a long while since I updated this blog – well, there have been reasons. It’s been a busy time since I last wrote here. And also, I needed to update WordPress, which is a task I kept putting off.

So – there have been other writing projects, notably my book: “The Million Death Earthquake”, published by Palgrave Macmillan last year. I had for a long time had the idea of writing a basic book on seismology. My reasoning was that after so many years of dealing with public enquiries about earthquakes, I have a pretty good idea (a) how much the average person knows about the subject (not much), and (b) what it is they would like to know. When one is frequently interviewed by journalists, one gets used to what are the standard questions that come up over and over. So, I thought, why not put the answers down once and for all? Also, having been writing articles for a popular audience since I was a student, I am reasonably adept at writing in a “readable” style rather than an academic one.

The first thoughts of how to structure it came to me back in 1994, when I was staying in Bucharest for a meeting. Walking back from restaurant to hotel one night, it occurred to me that a could approach would be to start with the history of the subject. An earthquake is a pretty mystifying thing if you have no scientific knowledge of it, and scientific knowledge was for a long time hard to come by, simply because earthquakes are such short-lived phenomena. (Compare ball lightning, which is still not understood).

So if one goes back to an early period when no-one really had any idea what earthquakes were, except that they were most likely sent by God, and traces how, bit by bit, the story was pieced together, I reckoned it would be easier to appreciate the subject than if one simply lumped together the modern state of knowledge on a plate and stuck it in front of the reader.

When I got back to the hotel, I sat down at my laptop and composed the preface. And that was as far as I got.

Until 2010, when I was approached by an editor at Palgrave Macmillan and asked if I would like to write a book for them. She had seen an op-ed piece I did for the NY Times, and thought it was the sort of thing they could use. Would I like to? Yes, I would! So I started dusting off my ideas from back in 1994.

Macmillan were very clear about what they wanted and what they didn’t want – particularly, they didn’t want a textbook, or anything resembling one. That suited me perfectly; a textbook is not what I wanted to write. It seemed to me that there was a gap in the market for a really approachable book on earthquake science that you could give to your grandmother to read if you so wanted.

Macmillan also wanted something with some sort of social relevance, and that was what led me to organise the book into two parts – first, what are earthquakes and why do we have them, and second, what can we do about them? Which I think is a sensible way of organising the material. It also led to the title. I had made some mention of the fact that seismologists talk amongst themselves about when might be the earthquake with one million dead. The Macmillan Marketing department seized on that and decided it would make a great title. I’ve always maintained that titles are editors’ business and not for authors (well, that is how it usually plays out) so I went along with this, and emphasised the idea a bit more strongly than in the first draft of the book.

So as of last autumn, the book is out in hardback. I am waiting on up to date sales figures, but I understand it has not been doing too badly for a science book. And I have had a lot of encouraging feedback and some very kind emails. And to be honest, I would rather be the author of a book on seismology that brings some scientific knowledge to readers from every walk of life, than a highly acclaimed technical work for professionals only.

The latest on L’Aquila

I have had a number of messages from various people in the scientific community in the UK asking if there is any petition they can sign in support of the Italian scientists recently convicted of involuntary manslaughter over the affair of the L’Aquila earthquake. While I’m not aware of any petition, I do know that many professional organisations in the earth sciences and engineering have posted statements on the web sites expressing concern.

To give a few examples: the Royal Astronomical Society (www.ras.org.uk) states that

“The Royal Astronomical Society is gravely concerned by the sentencing of scientists accused of providing misleading advice and false reassurances in the days leading up to the April 6th, 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy. This verdict will seriously compromise the engagement of all scientists in issues of risk, particularly when uncertainties in scientific evidence preclude the type of definitive answer that is often demanded by politicians and the public.”

The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (www.eeri.org) writes

“Based on all the evidence available to date and speaking on behalf of the Institute, the Board of Directors believes the indictment and conviction are misguided and stands with our member Professor Calvi and our other colleagues on the commission during this difficult time. The Board expresses its respect for their long service in working to improve earthquake safety in Italy and internationally.”

And more could be cited. So what does one make of an organisation that issues a statement against the six scientists, and explicitly supporting the verdict condemning them? A letter to this effect has been sent to the Italian president in the name of the “International Seismic Safety Organization” (ISSO), and signed by a number of scientists, some moderately well known.

Who or what is ISSO? A little web research suggests that it did not exist before August 2012. Further, its postal address appears to be that of a lawyer acting for the victims of the L’Aquila case. Its name is deceptively similar to the International Seismic Safety Centre (ISSC) which is affiliated to the International Atomic Energy Authority. Anyone with access to a copy of Photoshop can mash together a logo and award themselves an impressive sounding title to put on a letterhead. I could found the International Agency for Seismology and Geophysics tomorrow if I wanted to, and start sending out official-looking letters that might fool the unwary.

As far as I can see, the goal of ISSO is to decry the practice of probabilistic seismic hazard assessment in favour of a deterministic approach, using the same failed arguments and misleading examples as get trotted out regularly. The irony is that hazard assessment was not the main issue at L’Aquila; had any of the accused been staunch determinists, they would have been found guilty with the rest. Nevertheless, the idea that these people are seeking to exploit the trial to try and score points in a dispute over seismological methodology, at the expense of the freedom of the accused scientists, will be found repugnant in the extreme. It is hard to imagine a more despicable way of advancing one’s cause.

The verdict in the L’ Aquila case

The seismological community is still in a state of shock today after yesterday’s verdict of manslaughter against six scientists in Italy. In understanding this case, it’s important to be aware of the full facts.

In the spring of 2009, a series of small but highly perceptible earthquakes was being felt in the central Italian city of L’ Aquila and the nearby villages. As there was much public concern about whether these were leading to something worse, a meeting was called at which six scientists and one government official (in the civil protection agency) were summoned to give advice. The six scientists were people at the top of the engineering seismology community in Italy, people of the highest international standing.

There were two possibilities to deliberate. Firstly, it sometimes happens that a large earthquake is preceded by a series of smaller ones. The term for these events is foreshocks. Secondly, it sometimes happens that a series of intense small earthquakes occurs and dies away again without any large event. Seismologists call this a swarm, and swarms are actually common in the UK, the last prominent one being in Manchester in 2002. So were the L’ Aquila earthquakes foreshocks or a swarm?

The only way to try and answer this is to look at historical precedents, since there is no measurable property that distinguishes a foreshock from a common small earthquake. The panel noted two things. Firstly, swarms are not uncommon in Italy. This is a fact. Second, large earthquakes in Italy usually do not have foreshocks. This is also a fact. Hence, on the balance of probabilities, the L’ Aquila events were more likely to be a swarm. I can’t think that any seismologist would disagree with this.

But – they were careful to add – L’ Aquila is in a well-known area of high seismic hazard, and it was always possible that a strong earthquake could strike at any moment.

The problems started straight after the meeting. The civil defence official, who was not a seismologist, gave a TV interview, in which he said that the small earthquakes were acting as a safety valve by releasing energy; therefore a large earthquake was now unlikely; therefore residents could relax and have a nice glass of wine.

This was wrong. There is no basis for such a statement, and this is why: the energy involved in a 6.3 magnitude earthquake like the one that struck L’ Aquila a few days later, is about 50,000 times more than any of the small earthquakes. Therefore the sequence that had been felt up to that date had barely skimmed off the slightest tiny fraction of the energy available.

It was this falsely reassuring statement that formed the basis of much of the prosecution’s case. But why then prosecute the seismologists, who gave advice according to the best science as they saw it?

In dealing with natural hazards, one seldom deals with certainties. I remember some years ago, being asked by a journalist whether an earthquake that had just occurred in central Russia would cause a tsunami. I was able to reply, with complete confidence, that as a tsunami requires water, and the earthquake was about as far from the sea as it is possible to get anywhere on Earth, that there would certainly be no tsunami.

But that is a rare case. Usually one is dealing with probabilities. Imagine a game where you must roll two dice, and you win if you roll anything other than two sixes. If you ask my opinion, I will say that the game is heavily in your favour: there is a 35 in 36 chance that you will win. You roll the dice and two sixes come up. Was my advice wrong? Of course not.

The fear of many scientists, and not just seismologists, is that the verdict in the L’ Aquila trial will inevitably compromise the relationship between scientists concerned with natural hazards, and the public and state. What would happen in Britain the next time a swarm of earthquakes causes alarm? Do I advise people that for a swarm in Britain to develop into a magnitude 6 earthquake would be unprecedented and extremely unlikely? Or should I keep silent in case the extremely unlikely event occurs and I end up in a law court?

I would like to think it couldn’t happen in Britain. But then I would not have imagined it could have happened in Italy either.


It’s a myth that Tolkien invented the hobbit. The detailed description of hobbits may have been his invention, but the word was pre-existing. I have seen it in a 19th century work on folklore in a list of supernatural creatures. Orcs are similar – the word previously existed, but meant a sea monster (think Orca). Tolkien adopted it for his goblin-oid minions of the Dark Lord. The odd thing is that makers of fantasy games are happy to have orcs all over the place, but daren’t mention hobbits for fear of the Tolkien estate. If anything, orcs are more original than hobbits – certainly in the extent to which the description differs from pre-existing usage of the name.

It was not a bad idea on JRR’s part to choose existing words, which sound like real names because they are real names. Although, being a linguist, Tolkien was better than most at inventing new words. Imitators of Tolkien often turn out to have a tin ear when it comes to invented words and names. Take, for instance, Robert Jordan, author of the lengthy “Wheel of Time” series. He needs to bring orcs into his world, but he doesn’t want to call them that. So he runs together “orc” and “troll” and comes up with “trollocs”. Which is unintentionally hilarious, firstly because it sounds like “ballocks” and secondly because it sounds like “trollops”. One can hardly read a sentence along the lines of “the way was blocked by a huge evil-looking trolloc” without mentally substituting “trollop”, with the risible image that follows.

Jordan has similar problems with other words. He wants his characters to smoke something, and calls it tabac. Now, either this is something pretty close to tobacco or it isn’t. If it is, why not call it tobacco and be done with it? The whole novel is not written in fantasy language, it’s written in English, which means that where a close English word exists, one uses it. That is how translation works. If the stuff is nothing like tobacco, then why give it a name that is so close as to be almost indistinguishable?

Better to use English words where they exist. Like hobbit, in fact.


An email arrived this morning detailing a very strange-sounding event:

VOLCANO FUN DAY, Holyrood Park Saturday 8 October, 11am – 3pm. A family activity day all about volcanoes – explore modern and ancient volcanoes and meet the scientists who work on them. There will be hands-on activities, films and information indoors, and outdoor excursions to Arthur’s Seat, including a chance to try out the Rock Operator iPhone app!

Holyrood Park Education Centre, 1 Queens Drive, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh , EH8 8HG.

Volcano Fun Day? Parents! Why not peg your children in the path of a lava flow? It’s fun! Shortly to be followed by Malaria Fun Day, I’m sure.

Actually, it’s not without precedent. One of the US volcanology web sites has a mascot in the shape of a cute cartoon volcano with big goo-goo eyes. Right – so we should have Vicky the Volcano, Ernie the Earthquake, Larry the Landslide, Freddie the Famine, and Billy the Bubonic Plague, all drawn as cute cartoon characters.

Volcanoes are not fun. Volcanoes are not cute. They are natural disasters. They kill people.

The 11 March 2011 tsunami at Kamaishi

The video footage linked below is particularly interesting because it is an unedited record of what happened at the fishing port of Kamaishi, towards the northern end of the east coast of Honshu, immediately after the earthquake. The film starts more or less directly after the shaking stopped; on the soundtrack you can hear people are still alarmed. It then shows what happened next over the period between the earthquake and the arrival of the tsunami, including a few people wandering around seemingly oblivious of the tsunami warning sirens.

Kamaishi was supposedly protected by a massive breakwater, 30 years in construction, at a cost of around 1.5 billion US$. The video shows what happened – after about 13 mins you can see in the distance that water is pouring over the top of the breakwater like a weir, and the harbour basin is filling up like a bath. Once the breakwater was submerged, there was nothing to stop the sea surging in.

Thanks to EERI for posting this in the first place.

A scene from the video. Click the link below for the full footage.

3 March 2011 tsunami at Kamaishi, Iwate

Seismological cartoons

For many years I’ve been collecting cartoons about earthquakes, mostly from newspapers. I have some that go back to the early 20th century. A lot of them are depressingly similar. Many are simply variations on “shaken but not stirred” or “did the earth move for you?”. It’s a refreshing change to find one that actually makes a valid point – in this case about changes in the speed of information compared to seismic wave velocities. Back in the 1980s it was usually the seismologists who knew about a distant earthquake first. Then for a period, journalists would get the news before teleseisms reached our network, so the BBC would be phoning about an earthquake in Japan before we had the signals. Now, with automated global detection and alert networks, it’s once more the seismologists that know first – but only by a matter of seconds.

Anyway, here’s the carton:

Seismic waves (from xkcd)

H.G. Wells on

We hear so much about “expert judgement” and “panels of experts” … here is what H.G. Wells has to say:

Now Newton, Darwin, Dalton, Davy, Joule, and Adam Smith did not affect this “expert” hankey-pankey, becoming enough in a hairdresser or a fashionable physician, but indecent in a philosopher or a man of science.

From “A Modern Utopia”, Chapter 3. Admittedly he is discussing economists!

The Murder Room

Of the various tropes in detective fiction, one that I like in particular is the cold case – and the colder the better. Particularly if it is some incident in the past that casts a long shadow onto the present. It’s not too hard to imagine a case occurring 50 years that turns out to have connections with a present-day one. But how far back could one push it, I sometimes wonder? Could one plot a novel where a present-day murder was rooted in something that happened 100 years ago? 200?

Passing through the airport last week en route to a relaxing holiday, I was intrigued to see on the bookshelves a novel by Michael Capuzzo called “The Murder Room”. The sales pitch on the front cover reads “1 room. 3 detectives. And 300 cold cases to solve.” This is accompanied by a quote from the Guardian: “Like seating Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple [etc] … in front of a cold case and watching the sparks fly”.

So I picked it up for some holiday reading. This turned out to be a mistake.

One thing anyone who has ever dabbled in role-playing or theatrical improvisation may have noticed is that it is much easier to act stupider than you are than to act cleverer then you are. This has relevance in detective fiction; if your hero is a genius-level detective, you have to make him a genius, which requires some intellectual ability yourself. The author can of course weight things in the detective’s favour; but in a scene like the famous exchange between Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, even if the Conan Doyle has planted the clues, the deductions still have to be credible.

This is apparently beyond the skill of Mr Capuzzo. His three detectives are the greatest detectives in the world. They are brilliant. They are incredibly famous. They are really great. We know this because the author tells us they are. Over and over again. But in fact, they never do any detecting. Faced with a crime, one of them will suddenly say, “Obviously the murderer is happily married, living in a suburb of Michigan and drives a black Cadillac”. Not because any clues point in that direction, but because it just has to be so. Then when the criminal is caught, and the detective found to be right, everyone praises him and we are told once again that these are the greatest detectives on the planet.

In fact, the author tells us a lot in the authorial voice, including the population of Boone VA (13,472) and the largest number of women ever to be photographed together in swimsuits on Bondi Beach. This is not so much writing as mainlining Wikipedia.

Here’s a sample of the prose style. This is the last paragraph of chapter 15.

“Walter had been moonlighting as a consulting detective on the most challenging and depraved murder cases in the world for more than a decade. It was what he did in his “spare hours” while working full-time for the Michigan Department of Corrections.”

I repeat, that’s the end of a chapter. Really finishes on a high note, doesn’t it?

Eventually, by page 219, halfway through the book and still without any discernable plot or sympathetic characters, I gave up. Fortunately I had packed another detective novel, by PD James, who can always be relied on for something gripping. When I dug it out of my suitcase, I got a surprise at the title, which I had forgotten. It was called “The Murder Room”.