All Shook Up: Dr. Lucy Jones on How to Tell People the Big One is Coming

Dr Lucy Jones
I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear+Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Lucy: 00:01:56 That process, in the early ’90s we had a lot of earthquakes. And that the reaction to me being on camera with the baby, helped me understand that people were turning to scientists after earthquakes not for the science information… Well only partly for the science information that I found so interesting. But also for reassurance and comfort. You know, that the earthquake scares you because everything becomes uncertain. And when you come to the scientists and we give it a name and we give it a number and we give it a fault, we’re saying somebody understands what happened to you. And that is reassuring.
And the really strong response to me doing it as a mother, comforting a baby essentially as I’m comforting the city, people explicitly talked about that because of that image. And it was like, “Oh, this isn’t just about science, this is really about psychology and reassurance.” And that started me in a process towards saying, you know, “What’s important here is telling people what we know, rather than what we don’t know.”
That’s Dr. Lucy Jones, who has a talent for translating the scary uncertainties of earthquakes into a language the rest of us can relate to. She is now putting her communication skills to work not only to help communities prepare for the inevitability of future earthquakes in her home state of California, but also for the inevitability of global climate change.

Alan: 00:00:00 This is so great to be talking to you, because this is a subject that has obsessed me for many decades.
Lucy: 00:00:08 You mean the earthquakes?
Alan: 00:00:09 Yes. Yeah. I mean, there’s two things about you that I’m obsessed with. One is what you study which is earthquakes and the other is how you communicate about earthquakes. It’s just extraordinary how well you communicate.
Lucy: 00:00:26 Oh, thank you. It was a learning process. I do it differently now than I did in the ’90s.
Alan: 00:00:33 Oh that’s great, tell be about that. Because I remember you were already on the road to being a great communicator in the ’90s when you showed up after one earthquake holding your baby son on camera. I thought that was a great touch, did you wake him up to bring him into the studio?
Lucy: 00:00:50 No, it’s because my husband’s also a seismologist and a couple years earlier he’d moved over to Cal Tech, so when the next big earthquake happened we both needed to respond. And it was 10 o’clock at night and we didn’t have babysitters on call at 10 o’clock at night. So actually I was already in the lab responding to an earlier earthquake, he was putting the boys to bed. Actually was patting our five year old on the back and went, “Sven, if you don’t stop jumping around you’re never going to get to sleep.” And then realized it was an earthquake and not Sven.
Alan: 00:01:24 I’ve heard them compared to subway trains rumbling through, but never a kid jumping around.
Lucy: 00:01:28 You know, so he pulled both the five year old and the one year old out of bed and came on in. And then there was a computer crisis, you know, back in the ’90s you had big computer rooms. And he had to go in there. So he literally handed me the baby in the middle of an interview, because you have to. And it was like, “Okay,” just keep on going.
Alan: 00:01:49 So aside from that, how did you communicate differently in those days, from how you do now?
Lucy: 00:01:56 That process, in the early ’90s we had a lot of earthquakes. And that the reaction to me being on camera with the baby helped me understand that people were turning to scientists after earthquakes not for the science information… Well only partly for the science information that I found so interesting. But also for reassurance and comfort. You know, that the earthquake scares you because everything becomes uncertain. And when you come to the scientists and we give it a name and we give it a number and we give it a fault, we’re saying somebody understands what happened to you. And that is reassuring.
And the really strong response to me doing it as a mother, comforting a baby essentially as I’m comforting the city, people explicitly talked about that because of that image. And it was like, “Oh, this isn’t just about science, this is really about psychology and reassurance.” And that started me in a process towards saying, you know, “What’s important here is telling people what we know, rather than what we don’t know.”
And you know, for scientists, what we don’t know is what’s interesting. You know? Once it’s settled we stop caring, it’s boring, we go onto something else, right?
Alan: 00:03:13 But for us in the public, we get scared by what we don’t know, right?
Lucy: 00:03:18 Exactly. And so we have to fill this different function. And of course, scientists aren’t all that comfortable communicating. The reporters show up, “My god, how do I get this geek to talk?” Well they’ve learned that asking a scientist, “What did you learn?” Is a good way to get a scientist excited and talking.
But what that meant is that we were then telling people what we didn’t know about earthquakes and learned differently from this one, rather than saying, “You know, most of this was understood. We told you those were bad buildings.” And you know, that even in Northridge, you know, 95% of what happened had been predicted, essentially, was expected. And instead we’re talking about the one part we didn’t understand, which was the steel-framed buildings in that case.
And I realized that what we were doing was communicating that earthquakes were really uncertain and unknowable. And that increases the fear.
Alan: 00:04:08 Well I tried to learn as much as I could about earthquakes when I realized I was going to spend a lot of time in LA, shooting the MASH television show. So I rented a house and I bought an earthquake map from I guess the geological service. I don’t know, I got it from some government agency. And it laid out all the faults, active and inactive. It didn’t matter to me if they were inactive, because they were.
Lucy: 00:04:39 Right?
Alan: 00:04:43 And I went to work at 20th Century Fox in Beverly Hills and looked at the map and saw it was surrounded on three sides by earthquake faults.
Lucy: 00:04:54 And those were all active ones. You would have been between the Newport-Inglewood, the Santa Monica, and the Hollywood fault.
Alan: 00:04:59 Oh god, don’t tell me. I used to get on a plane every week to go back to New Jersey, and the last thing I would do is look out the window as we took off, expecting to see the earth rumble under the flight. And then I was in New Jersey one time, sitting in the room where I did writing and I felt the subway rumble underneath me and then I realized there are no subways in that part of New Jersey. And I was in a three-point-something earthquake in New Jersey, I couldn’t escape them.
Lucy: 00:05:30 Well they happen everywhere.
Alan: 00:05:32 And now I live in New York, in Manhattan, on an earthquake fault.
Lucy: 00:05:35 Yeah. And you know, when I moved from… I grew up in Los Angeles and then went to Brown as an undergraduate and MIT for graduate school. And moving to Boston, it was the first time I’d ever experienced subways. And every time the subway would go by I’d think it was an earthquake. And it took me like, a year or two before I could ignore the subways going past.
Alan: 00:05:58 So you have such a human presentation of your science. I want to know, in a personal way, when you feel an earthquake, or something you think is an earthquake, what’s your emotional reaction?
Lucy: 00:06:17 I’ve spent my life studying these things. And you know, one thing about being a seismologist is you don’t get to create your own experiments. You got to wait for what the earth gives you. And so my first thought is usually, “Data. Oh, what is this?” And actually, I start counting as soon as I feel it, because-
Alan: 00:06:35 What do you learn from that?
Lucy: 00:06:36 All right, it depends on exactly what I’m feeling. Earthquakes produce two types of waves, p-waves and s-waves, which actually stand for primary and secondary. It took us a long time to realize that what it was was a sound wave and a shear wave. The sound waves travel faster and get to us first.
And if you feel both of those waves, the time between them is the distance to the earthquake. Just like you know, when you-
Alan: 00:07:01 The distance to the epicenter, you mean?
Lucy: 00:07:03 Right. The distance to where it began. And you know, think about thunder and lightning, and it’s like five seconds per mile for the time between seeing the lightening and hearing the thunder. Well the p and s wave it’s actually five miles per second. So if there’s three seconds between the waves the earthquake was beginning 15 miles away from you.
So that’s the first thing, but often you miss the p-wave. Or humans often hear it, because it is a sound wave, or animals will hear it and the humans only perceive the s-wave. That’s where some of the stories of animals predicting earthquakes come from. From feeling the beginning.
Alan: 00:07:41 So is there any truth to those stories about animals?
Lucy: 00:07:45 No.
Alan: 00:07:45 No.
Lucy: 00:07:45 The only thing is they feel the beginning of the earthquake that we sometimes miss.
Alan: 00:07:49 So I don’t need to keep a canary?
Lucy: 00:07:52 No canaries, doesn’t do you any good.
Alan: 00:07:54 [crosstalk 00:07:54]
Lucy: 00:07:53 Or snakes, snakes were a big, popular one. Doesn’t work.
Alan: 00:07:57 What’s popular?
Lucy: 00:07:59 Snakes, there were a lot of stories out of-
Alan: 00:08:01 Snakes, no, forget that. I’m afraid of snakes, too.
Lucy: 00:08:04 You see? It doesn’t do you any good.
Alan: 00:08:04 Actually I’m not, I used to play with snakes as a kid, but thank god I outgrew that.
Lucy: 00:08:11 No, so that one’s not up, and you then only are feeling the s-wave, or… You know, feel the p, feel the s, count the duration of the s, that tells you how big the earthquake is. Because the earthquakes begin at epicenters, but they rupture over a surface. I like to use an analogy of snapping our fingers. When we snap our fingers we put two surfaces in frictional contact. You push them together and the friction keeps them from moving sideways. If they weren’t pushed together you’d move them past each other without making a noise, which shows you that if the fault could open up you wouldn’t have an earthquake because there wouldn’t be any friction. So faults don’t open up, in fact… So the pressure keeps them together, you finally overcome the friction and slip suddenly and release energy in the form of a sound wave.
But you can’t snap your fingers at a point, you need a surface. And the same thing with an earthquake, they don’t happen at epicenters, they begin at epicenters and then rupture over a surface.
Alan: 00:09:10 When you say they don’t happen at epicenters what do you mean?
Lucy: 00:09:14 Meaning that an earthquake is the process of one block of rock moving past another and releasing… shaking is one of its effects. Just like when I move my fingers past each other in snapping my fingers, one of the things that happens, I release a sound wave.
So you need a surface that, one side moves past the other. But they don’t happen all at once, it starts in an epicenter and moves down the fault, just like… Another good analogy. Have a small rug on wall-to-wall carpeting, and you decide you put it in the wrong place. You want to move it over a foot. If you just grabbed one end and tried to pull it the friction would keep it from moving. Instead what you do is you’d go to the other end of the rug, pick it up, move it over a foot, i.e., reduce the friction, create a ripple. And then you’d push the ripple down the rug and accomplish moving over the rug.
And what we call a rupture front is essentially that ripple in the rug that allows the fault to move. And as that ripple moves down the fault, that’s what’s releasing the energy. So if you begin at a point and you travel for 10 meters and it moves at two kilometers a second, that’s over in a small fraction of a second, and that’s a small earthquake. The farther it goes the bigger the earthquake, because every point releases energy, so a bigger fault produces more energy. And a magnitude seven, like the one we had in July in 2019, that ruptured a fault that was about 30 miles long, and at two miles a second rupturing down the fault that took 15 seconds for the earthquake to occur. So the earth was-
Alan: 00:11:02 So where would the epicenter have been in that quake?
Lucy: 00:11:07 In that quake actually the epicenter was just south… was east of the city of Ridgecrest and south of the China Lake Naval Weapon Center. And then the fault extended up into the weapon center and the Navy base. And so it started at that one point and then ruptured up into the base, which is why the base is where most of the damage happened, it’s billions of dollars of damage to equipment and buildings on the base.
Alan: 00:11:34 Is that a good idea, to build a weapon center on a fault that turned out to be active like that? That sounds like maybe not a good idea.
Lucy: 00:11:41 Well, it means they lost money in that they damaged the equipment, but it didn’t… you know, they took care about their weapons.
Alan: 00:11:49 Things didn’t blow up.
Lucy: 00:11:50 Yeah, nothing blew up. No, it’s like the wind tunnel that they used for testing parachutes, right? Has to be completely replaced.
Alan: 00:12:00 So does the knowledge of where faults are actually give you some hints about where you can build things?
Lucy: 00:12:09 Only sort of. You were talking about that fault map of LA? And how many of them there were, right? We have about 300 faults that are considered active and long enough to produce at least a magnitude six across southern California. And over the next 100,000 years every one of them is going to move. Which ones happen in the lifetime of your building? That’s a random subset of that larger thing.
So it gives you information but it isn’t at the level that says, “Build here, don’t build here.” If you said, “I’m not going to build within five miles of an active fault,” we’d have to walk away from California, and essentially most of Los Angeles and San Francisco and the bay area would… bye-bye, right? And that doesn’t really make sense when those earthquakes maybe only happen every 1000, 2000 years.
Alan: 00:12:57 So that’s something I don’t quite understand, ascribing a frequency to an earthquake. The big ones are rare, right? The little ones are common. But when you say, “An earthquake is overdue…”
Lucy: 00:13:16 I don’t say that.
Alan: 00:13:17 Oh, okay, that’s a good start. And tell me why.
Lucy: 00:13:22 Because the distribution and time is essentially a random distribution. So what we would say, Poissonian, random about a rate. So you go and look at a particular fault, like let’s take the San Andreas fault which is our most active one. And we’ve been able to dig into it and figure out when previous earthquakes happened, because we can see them offsetting features like marshes that we can date with carbon-14 dating, so it has to have happened after that marsh was deposited but before this piece of marshland that wasn’t broken. This is a field called paleoseismology, and we’ve created a very extensive history.
So take Frazier Park on the San Andreas fault. Really good data shows the last 11 earthquakes, so we have 10 intervals. The average length of that interval is about 100 years. Three of them are less than 50 years apart, one of them it’s over 300 years apart. So the rate is once every 100 years, but…
Alan: 00:14:29 And that’s sort of an average.
Lucy: 00:14:32 But it’s a Poissonian… it’s a rate. It’s like, every year has a 1% random chance of having that earthquake.
Alan: 00:14:38 Right. And yet in real life these earthquakes, these big ones could cluster and then not show up again for a long time. So you can’t expect one every 300 years according to those… We in the public might really misinterpret those numbers.
Lucy: 00:14:59 That’s right, and this is one of those communication issues that the scientists sort of assume you understand what Poissonian random distribution around a rate means.
Alan: 00:15:09 I can’t even pronounce it, what is it again? Say it again.
Lucy: 00:15:10 Like, Poisson. It’s a Poissonian.
Alan: 00:15:13 Oh, Poissonian, yeah, right. Of course. How silly of me.
Lucy: 00:15:18 How silly of you. Of course you should know this, right?
Alan: 00:15:21 Shotgunning some Poisson, I know.
Lucy: 00:15:23 Exactly. And yet, when we assume that people know this… And there’s another aspect of science communication, in that we sort of theoretically didn’t expect it be Poissonian, right? You push on the fault til it breaks, just like snapping your fingers, you push til you overcome the friction. It shouldn’t be Poissonian. And the reason, what we think is going on… You know, we dug into data, the more data we got the farther away we got from saying we could predict the time of the next earthquake.
And we think what’s happening is that you don’t need to get to the failure strength on the whole fault. You get to failure strength at some tiny point and you start to slip there, and then the fact that the fault is moving makes it weaker. The scientific term would be to say that dynamic friction is lower than static friction. Once you’ve started moving it’s easier to keep moving.
Alan: 00:16:30 Ah, that’s interesting. So you don’t know where that’s going to occur, either. Or when.
Lucy: 00:16:35 Right. So it could begin anywhere, and it’s more like this random distribution of when you get that trigger. And then maybe you’ve just produced a magnitude one. We have magnitude ones every day. When is the time you’re going to produce that eight? Well you need to have a fault that’s long enough to give you an eight, and that’s weak enough to be able to let that rupture keep on moving through.
So the weird thing is become, San Andreas produces the biggest earthquakes because it’s the weakest fault. And then you get started, and once you get started on the San Andreas, we don’t have little earthquakes on the San Andreas. We have little earthquakes around it and then it’s like, once something actually begins on the San Andreas it’ll grow to a big one. And that really seems to be random.
Alan: 00:17:23 When you say weak you mean the friction is less…
Lucy: 00:17:28 Right, especially the dynamic friction.
Alan: 00:17:30 I’m sorry. I’m wondering about what weakens friction. For instance, in your opinion is it true that fracking can contribute to the start of an earthquake?
Lucy: 00:17:47 That’s an interesting… Here’s another carefully worded piece. Fracking itself pretty much does not cause earthquakes. Fracking occurs in shallow parts of the crust and our big earthquakes start pretty much deeper. You need a bigger fault to be able to give a big earthquake. However, I’m going to qualify that. The process of fracking often produces a lot of waste water that’s contaminated, and they need to dispose of it not into the water table. So they pump it deep into the earth. Increasing the pressure in the pores of a rock at depth definitely, absolutely sets off earthquakes.
Alan: 00:18:30 So if that’s part of the conventional process of fracking, the only thing you’re saying is you can’t do fracking as it’s done unless you do dispose of the water some other way? But…
Lucy: 00:18:43 You can do it, but you will set off earthquakes in the process. And geothermal energy production also sets off earthquakes, because that’s pumping water in and out of a hot part of the crust.
Alan: 00:18:55 Oh, so geothermal energy, which is helping us fight climate change, is possibly contributing or is definitely contributing to earthquakes?
Lucy: 00:19:06 Yeah. We have 11 major geothermal fields around California, and the majority of them, you can see earthquakes related to the pumping process. So yeah, they do. And it’s like, personally, since climate change is going to do so much more damage to our society than earthquakes are, that to me seems an acceptable exchange. But it’s not a scientific question, can you do it? Is it worth it? Should you do it? That’s a policy question, where the science question is, will this process set off earthquakes? Yes. Is that worth it?
Alan: 00:19:58 Wait.
Sara, our associate producer is suggesting something that I don’t follow. Say it again. Can’t hear you at all.
Ah. If the element in fracking is included, the element of burying waste water deep, if that’s included in the fracking process and causes and earthquake, is it going to cause a big one? Like, or a mild one?
Lucy: 00:20:40 The question of how big an earthquake you can set off with fluids is a very interesting one. And it seems to be controlled like other earthquakes. Most of them are small but you could be big, and it partly depends on what fault is around. So the largest waste water connected earthquake we saw in Oklahoma over the last… I don’t know if you realize that Oklahoma, in like 2014, 2015 was having more earthquakes than California.
Alan: 00:21:09 Yeah, I read that.
Lucy: 00:21:11 Right. And that was clearly the waste water disposal. The largest earthquake in that series was 5.8. There is a fault in Oklahoma that’s long enough to probably give us a magnitude seven. And most of us don’t see any reason that we couldn’t do that.
The largest earthquake we know about associated with fluids was actually caused by a very deep reservoir, because you build a really high dam and a really deep reservoir, you’ve now got a big column of water sitting on top of your rock. That water distributes down and increases the pore pressure in the rock below it. And so this dam in Soviet central Asia, I think it’s now Kazakhstan, had a magnitude six and a half back in the 1970s.
We don’t see a theoretical reason why you can’t get big. There was a point when this was first being understood, and it was actually discovered when the Army was disposing of nerve gas. And they pumped it really deep into the ground so that it wouldn’t be contaminated, but they also didn’t want to talk about it. So suddenly these earthquakes were showing up in Colorado. This was in the 1960s, like, “Where did these earthquakes come from?” And of course the Army’s sitting there going, “Well don’t look this direction.” You know?
And so it took a while before people were able to finally put the pieces together. But they set off… and those were like, magnitude fours, but it was much bigger than you usually see in Colorado.
Alan: 00:22:43 Between reservoirs and nerve gas and polluted fracking, and all these things we’re doing to make ourselves better off are causing earthquakes, which I thought were caused by, you know, totally-
Lucy: 00:23:01 Plate tectonics.
Alan: 00:23:02 Yeah.
Lucy: 00:23:04 Well, and most earthquakes in California, and most of the really big ones are still tectonically controlled. There was a discussion when we first discovered this, maybe we should try to set off little earthquakes on the San Andreas so we didn’t have a big one.
Alan: 00:23:21 I remember reading about that. Was that a good idea?
Lucy: 00:23:24 No. We never did it. Because we didn’t know how to keep them small. Yeah, right?
Alan: 00:23:29 Yeah, and especially if you say that it’s built so that it’s ready for a big one, not for small ones, right?
Lucy: 00:23:35 Well, and that’s an understanding that came later, you know, that would really be sort of… I’d say in the ’80s and ’90s as we started to really understand a bit more about the earthquake physics, and got really good earthquake locations. I mean, when an earthquake happens we don’t know where or when. We can measure a wave traveling from that location and see how it moves the ground at a place we have a seismic station. And then we triangulate and calculate back where and when that wave must have been produced to give us the pattern we see at all our stations.
The more stations we have the more accurate our locations. But also, our ability to model variations in the velocity at which the waves are traveling, different rocks pass the waves through at different speeds. So we need to understand the structure of the rocks at depth to get the most accurate locations.
It’s a place where computers have really made a difference. And now we do these complex 3D models of the velocity structure and we can see the locations of the earthquakes within 10s of meters, or you know, 100 meters. Where it used to be, a kilometer error bar was doing really well when I started in this field. And now it’s-
Alan: 00:24:54 How do you know the density of the rock? You drill a hole down and examine it? Or you have some kind of other measurement device?
Lucy: 00:25:01 Well yeah, we pass seismic waves through them. And so we do… One of the things we do is essentially a CAT scan. We set off explosions so we know exactly where and when the wave is being produced and record them at different stations.
Alan: 00:25:17 Now reassure me, you’re not out there setting off these explosions that are going to make my house shake eventually, right?
Lucy: 00:25:25 Well I have to admit there was one-
Alan: 00:25:27 Oh I don’t like the sound of that.
Lucy: 00:25:29 We’re trying not to. We tried very hard. They’re small. But people do feel them. I mean, it’s not something that’s going to shake your house off its foundation, but some of them-
Alan: 00:25:39 No, I don’t mean the explosion, I mean the explosion causing a quake.
Lucy: 00:25:41 Oh, no, no. It’s interesting, people really worry about bombs setting off quakes, and they don’t. Where the water does. Again, it’s where are you putting the energy in? Our bombs, you know, our small explosive devices are buried in the top, you know, few meters of the earth, and that’s a long way from where earthquakes are being generated. And it really is the same technology as a CAT scan, and we use that to get a 3D picture of what the velocities are.
And then when we go to locate earthquakes now, I said, we’re seeing them much, much more clearly. And that’s where we can now go, “Wait a minute. None of these are actually on the surface we think is going to be producing the big earthquake. They’re distributed around it.” We can see all these other small faults, but the main fault isn’t moving.

Alan: 00:26:33 You make me think of the… Let me find the right way to say this. When I was out in California worried about earthquakes I thought it was really important to predict when an earthquake would happen. And I think from listening to you, I have a different feeling about it. It’s not so much, “How much time do I have to get ready for saving my life?” It’s more, “What goes into building the building?” The preparedness that goes back, extends back from the earthquake months or years.
Lucy: 00:27:19 Or decades or centuries. Absolutely. I’d like to put it that, you know, do you want two hours to get out of a building, or a building that doesn’t fall down in the first place? And when you think of it in those terms you go, “Yeah, I want that building, because I want a home to come back to and a job to have.”
It’s just in conflict with our emotional response to earthquakes. So when we think about earthquakes, because they’re unpredictable, you can’t see them coming, all that uncertainty part, we become very afraid of when is it going to hit? And it’s pretty deeply wired in human psychology about that. But when you really look at what earthquakes do, especially in California where we have put building codes in place, where there’s a lot of seismic safety measures that have been undertaken, you’re far more likely to be murdered in Los Angeles than die in an earthquake at Los Angeles. And that’s true everywhere in California, it’s not just the high murder rate in Los Angeles.
But we don’t think of it that way. And yet when we did a model, we tried to understand what the big San Andreas earthquake would be like. Because as seismologist we could see a lot of things that were going to happen that weren’t being prepared for. Like I can tell you exactly where a gas line is going to break because it crosses the San Andreas fault, and when the earthquake happens and moves it, one side’s going to be 20 feet away from the other, it’ll break, it’ll cause a fire.
And we all knew this, and yet it didn’t seem to be affecting any sort of planning. So we said, “Okay, let’s stop talking about when the earthquake’s going to be, what’s the probability of having the earthquake. And let’s start talking about what this earthquake’s going to do.” And we created this big scientific study, we called it the ShakeOut scenario, to try and get a scientifically plausible story. You know, that whole thing, scientists reject stories because they give us the wrong answer. The plural of anecdote is not data. And yet human beings make decisions because of stories.
So creating this scenario was essentially a scientifically plausible story that would help people connect to what was happening, but was, you know, all the scientists would agree, this is a really likely sort of picture of what the earthquake’s going to be like.
In doing that, well, good news is, the gas company has gone and put shut off valves at those places we said, “This is exactly where it’s going to break.” And a lot of other sort of things like that. But in the story, and this is one of the really bad earthquakes, a 7.8 on the San Andreas that focuses the energy into the LA basin. We estimated 1800 people would die, which seems like a lot except for that this earthquake’s only once every couple of centuries.
But the financial losses were over 200 billion dollars. And it raised the possibility of a really long-term depression because of how difficult it would be to get businesses back up and running when, you know, transportation is disrupted, you don’t have water in your houses, how do you get your electricity back? And small business that’s out of, you know, out of business for six months doesn’t come back. So-
Alan: 00:30:36 And people homeless, perhaps. Homeless, jobless.
Lucy: 00:30:40 Yep. A quarter of a million people would… their housing would be uninhabitable. Or no, excuse me, a quarter of a million households would have to leave their homes. Lots of jobs not reopening. How many people would just say, “This isn’t worth it. I’m going to go back to my parent’s place in Chicago, and Google will let me telecommute.” There’s a lot of jobs that you don’t have to stay here.
And then you have cascading problems within the economy. And so when we looked at this picture, the issue… it’s not that you’re going to die in the earthquake, it’s, you might be bankrupted by the earthquake. And yet that’s not the way we emotionally think about it.
We’re taking a short break. When we return, Dr Lucy Jones tells me about a major effort she’s been leading to prepare communities for earthquakes. And how she is now taking the lessons she’s learned doing that to prepare communities for a far larger threat – the looming climate crisis.

This is C+V. And now back to my conversation with Dr Lucy Jones.
Alan: 00:31:18 So how do you communicate, excuse me. So how do you communicate this, which is a dire picture? Not only 1800 people dying but bankruptcy, homelessness, hunger, lack of water. How do you communicate that without scaring them into just denial and inactivity?
Lucy: 00:31:44 Well it seems to have worked. What we decided to do, we released this in 2008. And we decided to create a public event to focus on earthquake preparedness, get people to think about it. A lot of these damages are preventable but we don’t do them because we don’t think of that as being the issue.
And so we created what we called a ShakeOut drill. And it was actually intended as a one-time event to help people understand this. One of the things we did, you know, there’s 23 million people in southern California. We couldn’t talk to everyone. We had to figure out how to let it go. So we created talks about them and trained people to go out and give the talks. I went to every county of southern California and would train like, 100 people in each county, how to talk about this and take the message out to their groups. And then we had them sign up through a website to say they’d participate in the drill.
And we turned to the social sciences that said, people do what they see other people doing. So we needed to make it visual. So we focused on what we call the Drop, Cover, Hold on part. You know, the safest thing to do in an earthquake is to drop to the ground, get under a sturdy table if it’s nearby, and hold on. And we then did a lot of media stuff and we got this huge coverage, we got five million people signed up to participate, which is a quarter of the population. And we focused on having fun events, we made it a community thing, to try and work around the fear aspects.
So we invested quite a bit of work in doing this, we worked with the media and we worked with a lot of organizations. And it was successful enough that the state came and said, “This is a really good idea, we need to keep on doing it.” And so we did it again the next year, statewide, and got seven million people. And then some other states got interested and it’s grown, and it then went international. And actually, last year, so the tenth one, there were 60 million people around the world participating in the drill.
So we clearly hit on something. And I think a big part of it is, we actually listened to the social sciences. So we tried to hard to… We got to focus on what the science tells us and that credibility that carries off with people listening to us. But do it in a way that encourages action.
So yeah, if you really focus on just how many people are going to die in this disruption and how miserable you’re going to be, that’s a reason not to think about it. But if you focus on your community and how you want your community to be there, and how do you help people connect with others in the community? And instead of saying, “You need to protect yourself, you need to care for your family.” You know, this individual, isolating message, we worked at saying, “How do you help others? How do you do this in your community?” And ShakeOut is all done with organizations. It’s churches and schools and businesses that do it, not individuals.
Alan: 00:34:56 That really struck me, when I read in an interview you gave. You were quoted as saying, “The research on disasters shows that the communities that recover are the ones where people are connected to each other and care about each other.” Which is really what you’re talking about, you point them in that direction.
Lucy: 00:35:19 Yeah, we’re actually… I’m really excited about the next thing we’re doing. So you know, I retired, completed my federal service a few years ago, and started a non-profit, the Center for Science and Society. And just in the next month we’re finally doing our pilot project, we’ve been working on developing this program of going to a community, one of the poorer parts of Los Angeles county. Working with community organizations in that group, so we’re inviting churches and schools, and there’s something called Mexican Hometown Associations that are big social groups. And working with the Mexican Consulate as well.
And helping these organizations be ready for earthquakes, and that gets people in. They’re scared of the earthquakes, they want to deal with it. But a chunk of what we’re doing is connecting those organizations to each other. Create a community plan, what’s the resource you can bring to your community afterwards? “Oh, I have a kitchen.” “Oh, well we have these food stores.” And you know, put these things together about how they’re going to help afterwards. I’m excited about it.
Alan: 00:36:28 I can imagine you are, because it’s working. You’re getting people to connect with one another. And it’s inspiring to me because I spent a lot of time working on that in other areas. And this podcast is an attempt to help people think about connecting with other people and get clues about how it works best.
Lucy: 00:36:55 Yeah, and one of the other things, sort of continuing in the academic side, what can we learn from what we’ve done with earthquakes when we turn to try and deal with climate change. Because that’s one of the things that’s happened, especially as I’m sort of free from a government role, and just really, what matters? What should I be communicating about?
I have found I can’t advocate a huge amount of effort going into seismic safety if we aren’t going to deal with climate change. Because what’s coming from climate change? What could be happening with wildfires in California, with hurricanes coming up the east coast? I mean, the floods… What’s coming is going to be so much worse, and yet the problem in some ways is very similar. In both earthquake safety and climate change management we have to turn to scientists to tell us what’s going to happen. So it’s sort of an abstract thing. And we have to take those predictions that the scientists made and use that to spend money now, and deny ourselves something now for the benefit of some future that we don’t really emotionally connect to, we just have the scientist telling us it’s true.
And historically the earthquake safety legislation only happened in the aftermath of a big earthquake. Before ShakeOut, all seismic legislation in California had been passed within a year of a big earthquake. And with ShakeOut we… I then worked with the city of Los Angeles, and there’s major legislation that came through in LA. There’s now a dozen other cities in southern California that are doing this about mandatory retrofit of buildings. Telling people they have to spend money now for a future reason. And it’s happening without a big earthquake.
So what can we learn from why that worked to inform what we need to do about climate change?
Alan: 00:38:56 So that’s what I was going to ask you, what do you think you’ve learned? How do you think you could apply that, because you have a model that really works with earthquakes? But how do you get people to think about the future of the planet when they don’t have a chance to connect the dots?
Lucy: 00:39:13 Well I don’t think I have all the answers, but I’m trying to do this. And then I’m really hoping we can, you know, try some of these ideas out. One of them was that idea that, you know, when we talked about the probability of an earthquake we didn’t get action. We needed to really focus on the impacts. And I think with climate change, hearing that we’re going to be a degree centigrade warmer, that doesn’t connect to people. Especially, you know, Americans don’t even know what a degree centigrade is. All right, two degrees Fahrenheit. Well so what? It’s 76 instead of 74. What is that? Right? It doesn’t feel like it matters.
And we need to be much more explicit about, “The science tells us, and we can see from history, and here’s the data. That this means we’re going to be having increased numbers of floods and more intense hurricanes, and increased severity of wildfires and stressed ecosystems.” No ecosystem in the world at this point is experiencing the climate it was evolved for. Every one of them is experiencing some different climate, mostly hotter.
That means we’re going to have trouble with food. We’re talking about famine, water availability. We’re talking about disease. People are going to have to choose between moving and dying, which starts bringing up world war possibilities. And that’s… now we’re getting real scary again.
But I do think we need to put that out there, that this isn’t just about a couple degrees warmer. This is really about disruption of human society. And then what we have to do is figure out how to work together. You know, with the earthquake stuff, just the scenario didn’t get action. I spent a year in Los Angeles City Hall, with the mayor, coming up with seismic safety plans. And in that year I did 130 public meetings, which I sat down with representatives of the building owners and management associations, the central city association, the Urban Land Institute. Dozens and dozens of organizations.
And what I did was say, “Here’s the problem. Here’s the likely outcome if we do nothing. What do you think we should do?” And I think that last step was the most important, I didn’t say, “Here’s the problem, here’s why we have to do X.” I said, “Let’s talk about what can be done.” And it worked because we communicated.
And that I think is our biggest challenge right now, right? When we see people denying climate change it makes me want to just go, “You’re being stupid. You got to believe this.” Well that doesn’t change anything, right?
Alan: 00:41:52 That doesn’t change anybody’s mind.
Lucy: 00:41:54 Doesn’t work real well.
Alan: 00:41:58 It doesn’t make them smarter to tell them they’re stupid.
Lucy: 00:42:01 Right, exactly. And I think one of the aspects of why people aren’t listening is it seems so frightening that we can actually change the planet. That I’d rather believe it’s not true than that, because it’s just too awful to believe that it’s happening. And that sort of barrier doesn’t come down because you give them more data. It comes down because you sit down together and try to think through the fears and communicate.
You know, I also, especially since I retired, spend a lot of time with my music. And I realize-
Alan: 00:42:36 You play the Viol da Gamba.
Lucy: 00:42:40 Right. I play the Viol da Gamba, and-
Alan: 00:42:41 What made you choose an old instrument like that?
Lucy: 00:42:44 I was a cellist. I had discovered I really liked ensemble playing. And when I was in college I didn’t have time to be in orchestra and I didn’t really like orchestra. It was too big. They were starting a Renaissance group and they basically said, “Here’s this instrument, we’ll give you lessons.” And I’m like, “Okay. I’ll do that.” And I just found that I love 17th century music, I love polyphony. And I love small group playing.
Alan: 00:43:14 Would you mind… Do you have an audio file you can send us of you playing the Viol da Gamba?
Lucy: 00:43:21 I can come up with something. Well did you hear that I wrote a piece of music?
Alan: 00:43:25 I did. That would be great if we could hear that.
Lucy: 00:43:28 Okay, I have a really good recording of it. And that’s where one of the instruments plays the global climate data. And then I composed music around that.
Alan: 00:43:40 Wait a minute, what do you mean it plays the global… You assigned notes to the data, what do you mean?

One novel way Lucy’s communicating is through music. She plays the viol da gamba, and she’s written a piece of music that lets us hear the climate as it changes. A composition in which one of the instruments plays the global science data…as a haunting and disturbing melody…
(Music underneath… )
Lucy: 00:43:46 Yes. I said each year’s a whole note, so I have 138 years, I have 138 measures. And one instrument, the note that they play, that whole note that they play for each measure, is scaled to the average global temperature. So when it gets cold it goes lower, when it gets hot it gets higher. And you can then hear that for 100 years we stay within one octave of the starting note. And in the last 30 years we’ve gone two more octaves above, two and a half more octaves above that.
(Music takes over, then fades out… )
Alan: 00:44:19 Oh, that’s so interesting.
Lucy: 00:44:22 And then have some… yeah. So that partly was, you know, science is a process to help you figure out what’s true. It’s not a great process for processing emotions. And I think that’s this issue. When we’re so afraid of what we’re doing, turning to science and more data isn’t how people make decisions. And it’s trying to find that process where you don’t… It’s not saying, “Don’t do the science, don’t listen to the science.” I don’t want to use music to do science. Science is what tells us what’s true. But the music helps process the emotions and get us through it.
And actually, the reason I brought this up, that the more I thought about it, especially as we were like, trying to make a… We’re trying to create a climate crisis concert, to use music to process what we’re feeling and inspire people to move towards action. And I think the ending, when you look at making harmony in music, you can’t do it alone, number one. And you don’t have to like your fellow musicians but you have to be able to communicate with them. If you aren’t in communication you don’t pull off the ensemble.
And that’s what we need to face really the biggest moral crisis I think that humanity’s ever faced. That we have to care about the future and act together to do it. And we have to figure out how to talk with each other. And as I said, I don’t think the earthquake work has given me all the answers, but I do know we need to focus on communicating, inviting everybody to find solutions. You know, if the farmers are really upset about a carbon tax because they need that fuel to run their tractor, well sit down with them and say, “What works, then? How could this help?” You know?
And when you talk, no, no, you can’t say… And that’s one thing of having the scientists in the room. My job often was like, “No, you don’t get to say that earthquake won’t happen. The earthquake will happen. Here’s what your building’s going to do. Now what do you think we should do about it?” So keep the science in there, it’s what tells us what’s coming. Solutions are different than facts. The facts are what’s happening, solutions are how we change our behavior to change the outcome.
Alan: 00:46:49 When you were talking about letting everybody in, listening to everybody, cooperating, you made me think of what you said about science in the ’70s, with regard to women. Women in the sciences. How bad was it? Is it any better? How would you describe it?
Lucy: 00:47:12 There’s no question that it’s better. I mean, I was in an interesting time coming into the science endeavor, in that when I was in high school it was still before the women’s movement. And so I would have things like, my math teacher I should choose Harvard over Brown because they were a better class of men to marry at Harvard.
Alan: 00:47:36 Oi.
Lucy: 00:47:37 That was my math professor.
Alan: 00:47:38 That was your math professor.
Lucy: 00:47:39 Or my math teacher in high school.
Alan: 00:47:41 Wasn’t even your sex education professor.
Lucy: 00:47:43 Right, right. Or you know, the guidance counselor who, when I got a perfect score on science aptitude accused me of cheating and made me retake it in front of her. Because women don’t get that sort of scores. You know?
So that was my high school experience. And I stayed with it mostly because of my father who was like, “Yeah, women don’t do science, but you’re my daughter. You’re going to be able to do it.” He was an aerospace engineer.
But the women’s movement came in right about that time. So by the time I got into college those sort of things didn’t get directly said, but by then the women were already out, I was always the only woman in my physics class. So when I went into MIT as a graduate student I was the only woman in geophysics in my class. Two years later the class was a third women, right? So I really was at that cusp.
And you know, it was never, “You’ve got to leave because you’re a woman. I’m not going to teach you this class because you’re a woman.” It’s more I think the masculine competition of science a lot, you know, that it should be about finding truth and part of it is. But there’s also about personal advancement, you know, getting the best papers out and getting them cited by the other people, and getting that position at the top university. And then getting tenure and then getting awards. And all of that stuff that’s around… it’s personal advancement.
And when we did the ShakeOut it was actually an explicit decision on my part to walk away from that competition and say, “I’m going to do science leadership.” You know, if I don’t do this the science will never get used. If I don’t write those papers I know who’s going to write the papers. I can see the young people coming up doing a great job. And so I sort of explicitly walked away from it and had a lot of people going like, “Why are you sacrificing your career for this?” Well it turned out to be a great thing for my career, it turned out to be a great thing. But it was collaboration rather than competition.
And that was a challenge for many people, just because our whole reward system in the science endeavor is around these personal achievement type of things. And that part is still there.
Alan: 00:50:08 Yeah, I was going to ask you, what do you think are the problems that are still facing women in science?
Lucy: 00:50:15 Well there’s the leaky pipeline problem. The fact that we have… Well, there’s women facing this competition, and men too, but it’s more common in women to just go, “This isn’t the sort of human being I want to be.” And leaving because it’s just too aggressive and competitive.
I think there’s also a really, really big issue for humanity that we have accepted women working without accepting the consequences of women working. And somehow kids are supposed to happen somewhere else. And I see that starting to shift a little, of course I’m well past trying to deal with small kids. But that time I had my son on TV and it was such a positive response, there was this huge outpouring. There was a few nasty things, you know, what a horrible human being I was to use my infant son for 15 minutes of Andy Warholian fame. And I’m like, “Yeah, you have a babysitter, okay? Tell me where you found one.”
But mostly it was very, very positive. But we were very aware that if it had been my husband carrying the baby and doing the interview it probably would have been professional suicide. And I actually said back at the time, “If we ever reach the point where men can do this and it’s accepted, then we know we’ve made a difference.” And have you noticed in the last few years… I see it most in sports, but you’ll see these sports figures doing interviews after their game, carrying their baby.
Alan: 00:51:52 No I haven’t, I don’t watch sports enough to have seen that, but that’s a great sign.
Lucy: 00:51:55 Yeah, I mean, I don’t either, but I see it on, you know, in the news programs I have to admit. But it’s like, it was a really big impact to me because as I said, I talked about it 20 years ago. That would be a sign that we’ve made a difference.
And you know, I pulled it off… I could survive, well a couple things. I had a job where I could go part time, and I actually worked part time for 10 years. I also had a husband who was completely committed to the process and did half the work. And I think even more important than the quantity of time he spent, he did half of the emotional work. We sort of, there were things that were his responsibility and things were mine, and I didn’t have to worry about it if it was his. And I think that… I know a lot of women where their husbands are always willing to help but it was still their emotional job to make sure everything gets done.
Alan: 00:52:46 Yeah, that distinction started to be made in the ’70s. Does the man help or does he actually take responsibility for certain aspects of life together?
Lucy: 00:52:59 And that was, it was a couple I knew where they ended up splitting up and the woman, you know, great professor at MIT left and went to UC. And she was saying, “I got help, you know, he was always willing to help, but he was helping me, it was always my job.” And I think that was… And for my husband it was always a shared job. And that was critical, I don’t think I would have made it otherwise.
And it continues to be a really big problem. And you give up, you just get too tired handling this and you find some other… So many women I know along the way have, you know, did it for a while and then once the kids were around and they just couldn’t get it all to work, and they did something else or went some other way. And that’s not just a science issue. I think that’s a fundamental societal issue too, because when you don’t give the kids enough time they suffer for it. You know, this isn’t just the jobs and the women.
Alan: 00:54:01 You paint a picture that sounds so similar to the one you painted about climate change. You know?
Lucy: 00:54:12 You mean I’m… Some nights I think I’m socially naïve, I think if I can just get people to talk together we’re going to make a difference.
Alan: 00:54:18 Yeah, right. Well I’m exactly that naïve myself. And I tell you, I’m really inspired to hear you not just talk about this, but to relate the experiences you’ve had where you’ve been successful at bringing people together to cooperate. And I’m so glad to have had this conversation with you. I’m getting signals from the other room that…
Lucy: 00:54:46 Time to wrap it up, huh?
Alan: 00:54:47 Yeah, the epicenter is calling. So we do at the end of every conversation, we do seven quick questions, I hope you’re game for this. They’re not embarrassing questions.
Lucy: 00:54:57 Okay, that’s good.
Alan: 00:54:58 They’re not embarrassing to me, anyway. Because I’m asking them.
Lucy: 00:55:04 We’ll see what I respond. Okay.
Alan: 00:55:05 Okay. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever tried to explain to anybody?
Lucy: 00:55:13 Seismic moment. What’s the real energy related in an earthquake, is incredibly difficult. I once tried to explain 1.2 times 10 to the 26 dyne-centimeters in a soundbite. Essentially impossible.
Alan: 00:55:28 I’m not even going to ask you to get into that. Question number two. How do you handle a nosy person?
Lucy: 00:55:38 Oh. I actually find nosy people to be the hardest thing. It may not be obvious that I’m an introvert but I actually am. And I need to maintain personal space. And yet as a woman I’ve been acculturated to be polite to people, and I have a very difficult time being rude.
I can give you a good anecdote about it. In the time when we were having a lot of earthquakes, I was in the grocery store with my son who was probably, I don’t know, about six at the time. And somebody recognized me from TV and earthquakes, and came up and wanted to ask questions. And I was trying to sort of be polite, because I’m… that’s what we’re supposed to do. But not let him sit and continue to ask questions.
And finally… Each time I tried to wrap it up there was another question, and my son finally went, “You need to go away. This is my mommy and she’s with me now.”
Alan: 00:56:41 Bring that kid with you everywhere you go.
Lucy: 00:56:44 You got it. I didn’t do it very successfully myself.
Alan: 00:56:48 How do you tell someone they have their facts wrong?
Lucy: 00:56:56 Boy, you’re finding the hard things to… the hardest part of the communication. It is easier for me now to say, “Well you know, actually within the field we have come to understand this,” because I have a level of visibility and prestige that make people want to believe me. So I’ve got an unfair advantage at being able to do that. But you do have to be careful that…
I mean, one of the ways I sometimes start will be, “Why do you think that? Where did you get that from? Have you compared it to this?” You know, that’s the way the scientists do it, we don’t… None of us believe any of us can be absolute right or wrong, we always justify what we have to say. Doesn’t usually work with other people, but you can help them go through that process sometimes.
Alan: 00:57:49 Here’s one. Excuse me. This’ll be cut out, my throat clearing. What’s the strangest question anyone’s ever asked you?
Lucy: 00:58:05 I once got a letter that said, “I know you can’t tell me when the next earthquake is going to be, but will you tell me when your children go to visit out of town relatives?”
Alan: 00:58:22 Thought you were keeping the information from her.
Lucy: 00:58:24 Well I think that’s a really common thing. Again, as a response to fear, it’s less scary to believe that I know and I’m not telling then that I really don’t know.
Alan: 00:58:33 Oh, well.
Lucy: 00:58:35 That’s maybe one of the things we should think about as a lesson for climate change, too. Have-
Alan: 00:58:40 Okay, here’s the next question. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Lucy: 00:58:48 I don’t know how to do that, I’m a bit too much of a compulsive talker myself.
Alan: 00:58:54 You may be compulsive but you’re fascinating. How do you start up a true conversation with someone who you’ve just met at a dinner party?
Lucy: 00:59:10 One of the things I’ve learned to do, I only do it sort of well because it doesn’t come naturally, is I need to ask about them, you know? People always want to talk about themselves. And ask for them or ask for their experience, or you know, why they know something. It’s not easy, I tend to like to talk about myself. But talking about others tends to help.
Alan: 00:59:35 Everybody does.
Lucy: 00:59:35 Exactly.
Alan: 00:59:37 Here’s the last one, and I’m really curious to hear your answer to this. What gives you confidence?
Lucy: 00:59:46 Wow. It comes from inside, and I think it comes from my parents. They believed in me, they encouraged me, and they gave me a place to move from that still thinks that I can do it. And I don’t always have confidence, you know? I still suffer from impostor syndrome. As each new thing comes along and I get another [inaudible 01:00:17] “How am I out here?” I don’t think we ever get complete confidence in our lives.
Alan: 01:00:24 I get the impression that the honesty you just displayed is probably an important factor in why you’re such a good communicator. And not just honesty but vulnerability. With clarity, with a sense that you’re not going to lose any ground by showing your human side. And I get that impression so much from you.
Lucy: 01:00:48 I think that’s one of those things I learned to do somewhat differently over time. And so, you know, there’s a confidence that comes just from having been through so much. And you know, my kids weren’t perfect, we had some real problems. And you get through that. And I’ve had struggles in careers where people really, you know, “Why are you wasting money on that? You should be focusing on real science.” And I got through that. And each time you get through it it’s another pace to go forward from.
But you know, one of my good friends-
Alan: 01:01:22 Sorry.
Lucy: 01:01:22 I was going to say, one of my good friends says that my popularity and my problem is that I suffer from truth Tourette’s.
Alan: 01:01:35 That is a great ending. Thank you so much, Lucy, it was great talking with you.
Lucy: 01:01:39 Oh thank you, Alan, it was great.
Alan: 01:01:44 Okay, Graham would like to pick something up before you go.
Lucy: 01:01:47 Yeah, I can hear him.
Alan: 01:01:48 Okay.
Ah yeah, let me ask that. After your experience with the ShakeOut project and then came another earthquake, did you see a different response on the part of the people as a result of their having taken part in the ShakeOut project?
Lucy: 01:02:19 Absolutely. It wasn’t everybody, but a pretty large percentage of people who were strongly shaken did Drop, Cover, Hold on. And 10 years… When we started ShakeOut one of the reasons we did it is there had been an earthquake in the LA area, five and a half, and we had no visuals of anybody taking the correct protective action. So on that very short term thing, it’s really clear that that happened.
But I think also it’s an ongoing process, and finally feeling a big earthquake again has helped a few more cities undertake their seismic safety legislation.
Alan: 01:03:01 Well that’s great. I got to go, so Graham… Do you have anything? No? Good. Good. Lucy, thank you so much, I enjoyed this so much.
Lucy: 01:03:13 Oh great, thank you. This has really been fun for me too.
Alan: 01:03:16 Great, thank you. Bye-bye.
Lucy: 01:03:18 Okay, bye.

Dr. Lucy Jones is the founder of the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, which has the mission of providing understandable scientific information, especially about earthquakes and other natural disasters, to the public, government, and our community leaders. Her Center is focused on making our cities and towns more resilient in the face of these disasters. Dr. Jones is also the author of a wonderful book, aptly titled, The Big Ones . You can find it online or at your local bookstore. For more information about Dr. Jones, please visit her web site at: and follow her on Twitter at: @DrLucyJones