Thursday, June 18, 2009

Time Warp: Destination 1906

Lockwood had to poke me that the Accretionary Wedge is stumbling back to its feet, but it was good timing for a poke, since the quarter has just ended, and I might actually have time to write things other than comments on the undergrad papers I've been grading. (More on my insane past quarter later.) Anyway, I was initially concerned that I wouldn't be able to think of a topic and come up with an even vaguely eloquent post by the end of the grace period for late entries.
And then I saw the actual topic. No need to brainstorm here! I'm sure that every single one of you who has followed my blog, sparse though it's been lately, knows where and when I'd take my time machine. My choice definitely does not, however, come from any sort of desire to watch the destruction of a major city and the combustion of thousands of lives within. The decision to set the time machine for San Francisco in April of 1906 comes from an intense interest in earthquakes as events and processes, a great love for the city in question, and a fascination with the development of the field of earthquake physics itself.

I'll admit right out that I am curious what it feels like to be in a M7.8 earthquake. So far, my personal experience maxes out at M5.4, which was entirely exciting and not at all terrifying in my book. I suspect M7.8 would be well past the boundary between excitement and fear, but I suppose I wouldn't be afraid of the idea of that fear if I were gearing up my time machine to experience it. Furthermore, the bigger quakes are the ones that get the most intensive study, and while my own models are currently producing things that, according to the length of the faults, might not top the mid-6 range, I'll eventually be dealing in 7-pointers, and I want to know what one is like. For this curiosity, a time machine is a preferable option to waiting for a real one, both because it eliminates the waiting to begin with, and also because it means we wouldn't need a new 7.8 to appease any seismologist who might have this same curiosity. Of course, there's bound to be another one sooner than later, geologically-speaking, but the longer we put the new one off, the more we come to know about the processes behind it, and the more we can prepare our cities and citizens. The old quake already did its damage, horrendous though it was.
And that brings me to another point - I would not want to be in San Francisco proper to experience this earthquake. Even if my time machine were to make me impervious to flying bricks and walls of flame, I'd still want to be waiting somewhere where I could see the fault rip its way down the peninsula. I once read an account of a woman in Idaho who watched a fault rip through her property. She described it as if the fault scarp were being painted across the landscape by a very fast brush. That definitely seems like some sort of juncture between fear and awe, and that is absolutely something I'd want to see. My odds of merely experiencing a non-anachronistic 7.8 are much higher than of me watching the fault break in the process of creating that 7.8. Once the rupture passed me by, however, I think I would want to get back to the City as fast as possible, to see what damage the earthquake alone did before the fires took over...and then I'd want to get back to safer ground quite quickly as well, to avoid being caught by the flames.

But I could see a surface rupture for so many other earthquakes. Why turn my time machine toward this one? That, I'll admit, comes from my feeling extremely attached to San Francisco - never mind that I've never lived there! In making my plans to jaunt back 103 years, I'd build in a little extra time before April 18th - maybe I'd show up at the beginning of the month - so that I could explore the old San Francisco before it got wiped off the map. There are plenty of words about it, but in describing the before and after case, whose prose wouldn't be biased by what they'd just gone through? And, of course, who would have known to take before photos, if they had no reason to expect an after? The 1906 earthquake might have been the first extensively photographed natural disaster, but pre-quake images are hard to come by. I'd want to spend time just wandering the place, as I explore places when I visit them now, getting to know the streets and buildings and characters as they were before their disruption. If I were allowed modern technology aside from my time machine, I might try to snap some photos. If not, I'd plan to blow through a sketchbook or two. I might also be tempted to try and get a seat (or, more likely, a place to stand in the gallery) at the infamous Metropolitan Opera showing of Bizet's Carmen on the evening of April 17th, both because of the infamy of the event, but also because I am still a music geek, switch of majors or not! I've never seen Carmen live, and were I to have the opportunity to see Caruso in it, well, that's an excitement I'd share with many of those 1906 San Franciscans. It might even be a strange way to lose track of my hindsight for a few hours - just so long as I was sure to get it back in time to get out to the fault trace!

When I say that I'd want to get out of danger in the City once the fire started, though, I do not mean I wish to zap myself immediately back to 2009. I would be willing to handle the discomfort of the survivor camps for the sake of historical and cultural understanding, but also as a way to wait for the less ominous aftermath. Before the 1906 earthquake, so very little was known about faults and how they work, and the still-nameless San Andreas Fault was thought to be a small discontinuity in rock type not extending beyond part of San Mateo County. I would love to get myself an in with the scientific community of the day and watch the progression from knowing nothing of the earthquake source to "do the earthquakes cause the faults, or do the faults cause the earthquakes?" to the oh-so-fundamental elastic rebound theory. I would be so excited to watch the faults of California get drawn in on the map for the first time, outlining mountain ranges, bounding geologic provinces, highlighting the network of hazard that we still strive to understand and mitigate today. And to be able to witness that while also observing the rebuilding of San Francisco...Definitely a time of wonder and excitement, even though it came out of tragedy.

I suppose that all means I'd be staying until 1910. A bit of an extended trip, in terms of humanity, but not even a blink in geologic time. And since a time machine could be set to return to the exact time and place from whence it came, it wouldn't even be a blink at all to the current world that includes my timeline. It might mean four years off from my research, but I'd come back from it with a closer connection to where what I'm doing comes from, both in terms of scientific roots and in terms of seeing first hand what these natural processes we study can do.