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From The Vaults: Summer Evening Dinner With Seismologists

July, 1998

It’s berry season, so for once there was a lot I wanted to eat in this non-vegetarian house. There were few dishes not based on berries. Dried-cranberry challah. Deep-dish pie with blackberries, raspberries, and tiny champagne grapes. A salad with avocado, mesclun greens, raspberries, thick raspberry vinaigrette dressing, strawberries, blueberries, and the blackberries that are so common around here that they choke out native plants. (Conservation organizations up here try to eradicate their thorny vines. I see the tangles growing beside the train tracks as I make my way through the yellow hills on the way to Berkeley. It makes me crazy that I can’t pick any. Last summer at this time I was visiting Evan in Arcata. There were so many blackberries up there that we picked enough for three pies, ate our fill, got tired of them, and still had plenty to use as ammunition in a family fight.)

The room has a low, yellow light to it. The white candlesticks and ceiling lamp give it off, and the blond wood table reflects. One of the things Ross had the five-year-old doing was putting a dishful of squished marbles on the table, the kind that have been heated and flattened. They look so much more valuable than they are in this light– green, and clear, clear with a yellow flower in the center, cobalt. Now that dinner is over people are playing with them. The seismologist across from me has his arranged in a spiral, like a nova. His daughter and wife have worked theirs into complicated square mosaics. Another seismologist made his into a flower– all blue, with a yellow center. I’m being more abstract with mine.

All the seismologists are tanned or ruddy– you never see a pale seismologist. They spend too much time outdoors. Their hair tends to be a little disheveled; they wear polo shirts. Their faces are interesting, craggy. It’s their turn to talk now; their wives have run out of party chatter about kids, schools, and relatives. The seismologists talk earnestly about publication of their colleagues’ papers. One containing some now-doubted claims made it into Science Magazine. Some of the seismologists grumble with concern over this. The man who made his marbles into a flower shrugs, though. “I thought he had a good hypotheses,” he says. Science is, after all, an inexact and plastic art.

The seismologists discuss, with some concern, a colleague by the name of Savage who saw fit to chew out one of his proteg├ęs. Apparently Savage finds the mores of modern conversation to be unnecessarily polite. In my experience, this is not a new theme. My father sits with some of the oldest professors at Caltech at lunch. Often over dinner he would shake his head, telling my stepmother about one mysogynist or antiquated tirade or another. I think I recognize the name Savage, and ask about him. Turns out this Savage is not the one I know. Yet the details of this part of the conversation still hold my attention. Sometimes the human dynamics of science are the most interesting part.

The topic turns to the recent catastrophe in New Guinea. Even scientists talk about current events. The daughter of the seismologist who shaped his marbles into a spiral points out with pride that her father was on the news because of the tsunami. “What they were saying was utterly false,” the spiral-seismologist protests. The revival of the issue inspires in him as much worry as watching the news did; his brow clouds. Seismology never translates well to news broadcasts, and the seismologists seem to take each misunderstanding as a personal slight. With each press bungle, they become slower and more careful in how they release information. The media, in turn, sometimes choose to bite the hand that feeds them (who else is going to tell them how strong an earthquake was, and what fault it centered on?) and make the seismologists out to be haughty mad scientists hell-bent on keeping the public in the dark. In the Los Angeles area, hub of both Caltech seismology and Hollywood activity, this leads to uncomfortable detentes after earthquakes.

So the spiral-seismologist called the TV station and told them off, he recounts. The station called him back in a few hours, asking that he do an interview with them. The seismologist’s daughter beams, proud of her dad. He shrugs. Being on TV does not matter as much to him as making sure people are given the best information available.

The hostess, sitting at the head of the table, makes a joke. She wants her husband to move the location of some upcoming family function. “Tell Ross that a tsunami could easily wipe out the roof of the Cliffside Hotel,” she quips, winking at the flower-seismologist. He tilts his head back, calculating in invisible numbers on the ceiling the height of the cliff and the reach of a tsunami. The joke missed him. The other seismologists join in, all serious. They figure on a 75 foot wave, argue over fluke waves in Alaska. Their wives laugh at them.

The seismologists speculate about the likelihood of a tsunami as destructive as the one which hit New Guinea happening in the United States. If anyplace, they agree, it would hit Arcata. (I think of the blackberry bushes ripped out by the wave, Evan’s house underwater.) The area is the most seismically active in the country. Still, nothing has been done to prepare for a tsunami there. Pulp mills and schools are built out on a spit just like the one destroyed in New Guinea. If there was any time to set up a government program, they speculate, it would be now. They look to each other appraisingly. “Ask Ross for some money,” says the hostess to the flower-seismologist. He ducks his head, puts up his hand. It’s not a matter of money, just the government listening.

I feel at home again in this atmosphere. It’s better than most nights.

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