Saturday 19 March 2011
On the NPR website (which soon may lose federal support…?), I read an eloquent essay by astronomer and science commentator Adam Frank, who was reflecting on an e-mail from Pete J. of Australia, which said in part,
“Somehow the science of it all has suddenly lost its appeal.”
Adam Frank reflected:
“....I was deeply struck by Pete's reaction. One of the comforts of science's vision is an understanding that the world has its own path. The cosmos and the planet have their own movements whose focus does not rest with us. Those movements can include the path of storm clouds, whether we pray for rain or not. They can also include the abrupt tear of tectonic plates slipping 400 meters to release energies we can scarcely imagine….
….But at some point we crash up against domains where science, or at least science alone, cannot help. In those moments, when we are numb with the immediacy of great suffering, explanations can become clay on the tongue."
When I read this essay a few days ago, I really felt it expressed some of my current feelings with regard to the conflict between my involvement in the science of tsunamis and the devastation we have once again seen in Japan. For more than a decade after we started working on tsunami geology in the later 1980s, there were many “small” events which were locally devastating, and each time one happened, my human heart and my scientific mind were both very engaged. Then 2004 Boxing Day event occurred in the Indian Ocean, and the scale of devastation and misery was overwhelming. I didn’t want to be a tsunami scientist, somehow I felt guilt by association.
Now here in Sapporo, not far from the devastation, I go up and down. Sometimes my feelings draw me away from the science to find a poem or a photo or a sketch of something beautiful and calming and consoling. Then I come back to thinking about the science and looking for data, reading scientific reports, even thinking of possible future research on what’s happened here. Then I come face-to-face with a picture or story that’s heartbreaking.
Yesterday I was working on a blog entry about what Japanese scientists are trying to do right now, after and about the earthquake and tsunami. I was also starting to prepare a blog about the towns we visited last April on a tsunami field trip—towns where we were so graciously hosted, where we were educated about how they prepared for tsunamis (lessons we could take home to our own countries), and where now there is overwhelming devastation.
Some before and after on-the-ground images here:
I am starting to put together my own photographs from that trip with the images that have emerged since last Friday. I am beginning to be able to look at these images and on-the-ground ones like those on the web entry above, but it hurts.
And then... I see something like evidence of tsunami erosion in before-and-after photos, and my mind comes back to the science. I see a picture I took of a vertical evacuation structure in Minami Sanriku (the town that is no more) and then the “after” picture where it is still standing – it was four stories and it survived as a building – did it save lives, was it tall enough?
From another town we visited, Kesennuma City (indeed they showed us their museum, held a public lecture, hosted us a banquet/reception; and we stayed at a waterfront hotel, where some of us danced and sang karaoke into that April night), here is a poignant story:
This morning I have been feeling reflective and I went back to Adam Frank’s essay. It still says so much of what I feel. But… this time I got caught by this sentence:
They can also include the abrupt tear of tectonic plates slipping 400 meters to release energies we can scarcely imagine….
… and the scientist came back in me – I know of no case, including the very largest event, Chile 1960, that had slip of more than 10s of meters. The big energy comes from the length of the ruptures (100s of kilometers), not the slip, though the slip is indeed large – now measured on land at more than 10 meters and modeled offshore in places to be at least 20 meters on part of the 2011 Tohoku rupture. Such a rupture is HUGE, though it doesn’t sound like much, maybe, to the lay reader. This sentence in Adam’s essay made me want to start looking at references to see if I am mistaken somehow...
It won’t matter at all to most of his readers if it is a mistake. Indeed, it seems silly for it to matter even for me, but now it’s not so easy to read the essay as I want to -- to help my heart and to help integrate my scientific and feeling selves -- they don’t really live in different compartments. Except when they do.