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  • The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter by Deborah R. Coen
  • Andrew Jenks (bio)
The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter. By Deborah R. Coen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. 360. $35.

Earthquakes are physical and seismic events, but also mental and metaphorical phenomena. This fascinating study examines the boundaries between science and society through the history of modern earthquake science. Indeed, observing and recording earthquakes were not simply about the earthquakes themselves; it also involved the metaphorical shaking and collapsing of sureties in an age of rapid change. Chief among the mysteries of the modern era was (and is) the proper way of understanding the earthquakes themselves.

The book looks at four case studies from the long nineteenth century—the French Revolution to World War I—where citizens were enlisted in the project of observing seismological activity: California, Switzerland, Scotland, and Austria. The introduction and conclusion relate the book’s findings to the more recent history of seismology and earthquakes, especially to the earthquake that precipitated the Fukushima disaster. Along the way, the author examines tensions between scientific expertise and the perceptions and observations of nonscientists.

In the long nineteenth century leading up to World War I, the emerging field of seismology enlisted the help of everyday citizens as collectors of data—their observations and experiences during earthquakes—as a way of understanding the phenomena. It was a rare moment when the public itself had been recruited into the development of a scientific field. The author uses the term mass science, a phenomenon later associated with Mao’s China, when the masses helped gather data on various natural phenomena for scientists; or the Soviet Union and its emphasis on tapping into the wisdom of the folk to come up with new ways to improve agricultural yields and engineer human beings socially.

Seismologists, however, constantly wondered about the objectivity and usefulness of folk wisdom. Moreover, they wondered how such observations, across various times and places, could be compared and made commensurate. The seeming incommensurability of disasters, as well as the difficulty of categorizing the destructive power of a tremor, bedeviled the earthquake observers throughout the nineteenth century—and even to this day. In the twentieth century, notions of objectivity and precise measurement made seismologists increasingly wary of nonscientists as observers. People seemed to observe themselves as much as they observed the earthquakes themselves—and that seemed, well, unscientific. In the “short” twentieth century, particularly as the technocratic mindset came to dominate politics and society during the cold war, human earthquake observers were progressively replaced by the modern instruments of seismology. As a result, “human experiences of disaster no longer counted as scientific evidence” [End Page 982] (p. 267). The current era thus presents a sharp contrast to the long nineteenth century in which the divide between science and the public— between expert and layperson, techie and fuzzy—was far less pronounced.

The book comes with a sophisticated methodological apparatus—and one that makes for more difficult reading in places. The discussion engages the literature on risk studies, which like so much else that was supposedly objective and beyond politics turned out to be a social construct. Examining the “cultural determinants of risk” (p. 15), the author makes the important point that earthquake risks were both an objective fact—a result of concrete seismological conditions—and a social construction existing independently of the actual threat of an earthquake. Building on historians of emotions, the author also traces the popular construction of fear—both its alleviation and augmentation—through the emerging science of seismology and its discussion of potential looming disaster.

While the ability to precisely measure seismic activity has improved, seismological science has not kept up with advances in the human-built world—a point driven home by the Fukushima disaster. Scientists, much less the public at large, have little sense of how vulnerable the components of infrastructure in modern civilization are to earthquakes (and to their aftereffects, such as tsunamis). It is also not clear how human activities, in turn, might trigger earthquakes.

This is a smart book that has much to say to a variety of audiences: historians of technology, science...


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pp. 982-983
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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