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the big one

4 December 2004

The Big One, Jake Page and Charles Officer's new study of the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquakes, is entertaining, informative – and monitory. Many people know that the greatest earthquakes in the history of the lower 48 United States did not occur in California but in the backwaters of the Mississippi River between St Louis and Memphis. And what happened once could certainly happen again.

People in the central United States may know about the New Madrid quakes, but they know little about earthquake preparation compared to their left-coast compatriots. One purpose of The Big One is to suggest that communities in the Mississippi Valley could do better in preparing for another Big One.

Page and Officer are at pains to say that "The odds are that it won't occur in the lifetime of anyone living today" (213). They particularly don't want to be confused with bogus earthquake predictors, devoting an entire chapter to debunking "false prophets" who claim to know the day and the hour of devastating quakes to come.

Nevertheless, much of northeastern Arkansas overlies an unusual zone of faults, and the effects of earthquakes there can be felt – as they were in 1811-12 – over a wide part of the continent, from Chicago to Pittsburgh to Atlanta and beyond. Page and Officer recommend that cities begin to prepare, through improved building codes, for the eventual possibility of a major earthquake.

The Big One really isn't much of a history. The New Madrid quakes, at least here, do not make for a strong narrative. Page and Officer's exploration of the science of seismology, its development, and its refinement, is better. Perhaps most interesting is their sense of the engagements among science, politics, and public policy. From the ironic fact that Cold War nuclear-weapons testing led to seismological research that helps protect cities against tremors, to a tangential but compelling call for the public (especially the media) to pay attention to reputable science in matters like global warming, Page and Officer develop a sharp critique of how science plays out in political settings.

Page, Jake, and Charles Officer. The Big One: The earthquake that rocked early America and helped create a science. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.