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The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith [Paperback]

David L. Ulin

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Book Description

July 26 2005

Earthquakes are one of the great unsolved geological mysteries. Attempts to predict them have ranged from studies of California’s fault lines by USGS geologists to the work of an odd assortment of psychics and apocalyptics who base their sometimes startlingly accurate forecasts on everything from changes in the earth’s magnetic fields to the behavior of whales. The Myth of Solid Ground is a journey, both personal and cultural, through the world of earthquakes and earthquake prediction, one that seeks a middle ground between science and superstition, while also looking for a larger context in which seismicity might make sense. An excellent primer on the science of seismology, The Myth of Solid Ground looks at earthquakes as the ultimate metaphor for living with impending disaster.


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From Publishers Weekly

Ulin's quest for the truth about earthquakes is partly a personal journey in which he seeks to overcome post-traumatic stress and partly an introduction to the field of seismology, the study of earthquakes and seismic waves. It's also an exploration of the Californian spirit and landscape, on which subjects Ulin eagerly philosophizes. Writing in an intense, nervy style, Ulin describes being haunted by his experience of the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles. Understandably fascinated by seismology and its dreams of predicting quakes, Ulin embarks on interviews with leading researchers—and speculators—in the field. Yet he quickly discovers this science to be, like its subject, all about unstable theoretical terrain: "the whole field operates out of some constantly shifting middle ground between research and folklore, legend and fact." Ulin entertainingly describes each scientist and "sensitive" (a layperson who believes he or she can predict earthquakes) he meets, focusing on the enigma of earthquakes and the ways in which they test faith and reason. Ulin's brilliant prose recalls Charlie Kaufman dialogue, as he takes his audience on a wild drive across a beautiful yet doomed state, his mind buzzing with apprehension, with geological facts and with meditations on the themes of time, certainty and faith.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

How does living in an earthquake zone affect one's psyche and soul? Ulin, who lives in and writes about Los Angeles, takes a fresh and fluently metaphorical, mythological, and personal approach to earthquakes and our attempts to predict them in a book that echoes John McPhee's observational acuity and Joan Didion's dark vision. That said, Ulin's volatile combination of rarefied thought and gut reaction is uniquely his own. He profiles seismologists and explains their theories, and he studies the "X-files" at the Southern California U.S. Geological Survey Office--predictions sent in by people who find signs in everything from the shape of clouds to reports of missing pets to the proximity of the moon. He ponders the warning symptoms of individuals with "earthquake sensitivity"; takes his son to Universal Studios' amusement-park version of the Big One; and stands uneasily on the San Andreas Fault. Folklore and computer models, James Dean and chaos theory all figure in Ulin's restless inquiry into seismology and edgy meditation on the paradoxes inherent in a life lived on shifting ground. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Living on the Edge of Disaster Jan. 14 2005
By Karen K. Lewis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book represents the best in crossover nonfiction, a blend of scientific fact and intuitive speculation. Ulin's style mixes academic science with geopoetic imagery, pulling evidence and anecdote about earthquake predictability from both historic fact and personal experience.

In certain moments when fact and personal intuition collide--or converge--the line is never straight, or predictable. "I started to think about the fault that ran beneath this pavement, wondering what would happen if it slipped...All of a sudden, I felt like I'd been given a set of signs, like a trapdoor had opened to expose the real California, the wild and elemental territory of our nightmares and our dreams. I looked around: life went on as normal. Club kids hung out in front of the Rainbow and the Roxy, while traffic moved past on Sunset at a crawl. In my head, though, it was as if reality itself had started to slip, as if somewhere out on the boulevard, I'd been put in touch with some kind of strange, intuitive logic, and it was telling me tonight's the night" (112).

While Californians do, in fact, inhabit shaky ground, the broader question Ulin asks is how any person, anywhere, makes sense out of his or her place in the universe.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Myth and Reality in Earthquake Country Dec 18 2004
By Bruce Crocker - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
David Ulin, writer and Angelino, has the same needs as anyone else living in southern California, including the need to somehow come to grips with life in earthquake country. The Myth Of Solid Ground is the extended version of his physical and intellectual wanderings on the way to learning to become comfortable with quakes. Early in the book, Mr. Ulin, NOT a science writer, starts to veer into 4 or 3 star review territory when he spends a lot of time interviewing earthquake predictors and shows less skepticism than I usually like to read about, but I hung in with the book and found Ulin's conclusions satisfactory for a layperson. Ulin eventually discusses his meetings with many of the scientists currently involved with earthquake prediction [including telegenic Lucy Jones and hirsute Allan Lindh] and visits Parkfield, California, earthquake capitol of the world, BEFORE it finally had its long-awaited 6.0 earthquake [September 28, 2004 - after the publication of the book]. Ultimately, Ulin's son Noah seems to have the best answer for dealing with earthquakes [I won't spoil the end of the book by telling you how Noah deals with a quake, but I will say it's very close to how I deal with quakes]. Despite my early misgivings about the book, ultimately all the material hung together as an interesting and informative narrative and I do recommend the book.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "... and as always,there is the waiting,all the endless waiting,for the moment that the fault will finally go." Jan. 23 2007
By J. Guild - Published on Amazon.com
This is a very different,but nonetheless,an excellent book about earthquakes.What is it like to live in an active earthquake zone? Well,the author does, and tells us what it is like and how he rationalizes it all with himself. He shares these personal feelings with us and leaves one( particularly one who does not live there) with the feeling of what it is like to have the threat hanging always over your head;that a big one could happen at any time. You don't know where,when or how powerful;the only thing is, that they are certain to come.Most importantly ;if you do live there....life must go on,and we'll deal with it all when it happens.
David covers a lot of ground in this book. Some reviewers have suggested that it is disjointed and somewhat chaotic
in the way it is written.I can see what they mean,but isn't that appropriate for a book dealing with a subject as disjointed and chaotic as earthquakes?
He gives a ton of details about earthquakes in California and even some idea of how they tie into earthquakes around the world. He fairly extensively covers the whole business of trying to predict earthquakes,why they occur and what is really known about them and why their prediction is so difficult.He covers the many theories and shows that just as some concensus starts to gel,a new earthquake occurs,that completely ignores the theory. Concensus is not science,no matter how many agree. Statements abound throughout the book that fit the study of earthquakes,such as; "heard it somewhere,from someone else along the never-ending daisy chain of myth.", "the unpredictability of earthquake prediction",when it comes to observation,what we look for is what we get","earthquakes will always confound our expectations,no matter what we think we know","and most poignent of all; "To find out,you'd have to ask the San Andreas,and the San Andreas keeps its secrets close."
Another very interesting book about earthquakes is "A Dangerous Place" by Mark Reisner for which I wrote a review on September 9,2004 .These two books complement each other. There is, however, a shortcoming in each book.Reisner's book has maps and many photographs,but lacks an index or any references.Ulin's book lacks maps,illustrations and photos,also no references,but does include an extensive index.
Finally,both books refrain from making any specific predictions,but after reading them,you can understand why.
Ulin does point us to web sites of Berkland (SYZYGZ0 )and Cloud Man.
These men who have fairly accurate recent records of good predictions. Cloud Man predicted the Hector Mine earthquake on the fault Lavic Lake,long considered to be dormant A system that,until 1999,had remained quiet for longer than human civilization existed on earth. It was predicted 2 months before it happened and posted on his web site. It was the forth largest Southern California temblor of the twentieth century,coming in at a magnitude of 7.0.

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2.0 out of 5 stars It did not resonate, and had more myths than facts Jan. 9 2011
By John E. Vidale - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I may be a humorless literal scientist, but I expected more.

First, the some of the key facts are muddled. Accelerated Moment (not motion) Release, the final scientific milestone cited, quickly fell out of favor, rendering its description here out of date. Stress triggering is not so clearly described, and does not possess as much predictive power as is attributed. Co-seismic (p. 201) is a term for NOT beforehand, and the definitive co-seismic changes of the geysers were not precursors to earthquakes. The potentially precursory signals were NOT definitive. In fact, all the precursory phenomena cited were sketchy, which is difficult to ascertain from this book. There was appropriate skepticism for some would-be earthquake predictors, but others, most notably the Cloud Man, see their dubious claims of success overstated.

Equally frustrating, the vast scale of science and humanity brought on as grist for philosophizing made little sense to me. Some pondering was euphonious and harmless, other parts were irritating. For example, the potential role of water in faulting was repeatedly compared to the essence of life and roles of water everywhere. What does this mean?

The author frequently felt at risk riding on subways in earthquake country. My impression is tunnels are not so dangerous - it is only where tunnels surface that building safe subways is challenging. Perhaps some research into that would have been helpful.

I did enjoy the interviews with the scientists, and it is amusing to see our opinions taken so seriously.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Unstructured, rambling, and at times incoherent Feb. 28 2009
By John P. Roberts - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
There is a need for a discussion of the psychology of earthquakes. We need to understand how and why we think and misthink about their risk. That's not what this book is. This book is a highly personal account of the thoughts of one man who, if he knows much about the geology of earthquakes, doesn't let it show in the book. It's unstructured, rambling, and at times even incoherent. Rarely can I resell a nonfiction that I've read because of all the underlying and notation that I do, but there's nary a mark in my copy of this one. The only worthwhile parts are mildly entertaining accounts of some crackpot earthquake predictors.

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