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Predicting the Unpredictable: The Tumultuous Science of Earthquake Prediction Hardcover – December 6, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Though written before the catastrophe in Haiti, U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Hough presents a look at the history of earthquake prediction, explaining why true prediction in the short term remains impossible, that sheds timely light on the intractable potential for seismic disaster. Hough begins in the heady 1960s and '70s, when top researchers still believed that real-time earthquake prediction was within reach. Hough describes theorized earthquake precursors-including electrical conductivity changes in the crust (magnetotellurics), groundwater fluctuations, high- and low-frequency sound waves, and anomalous animal behavior-and global efforts to exploit them for timely predictions; unfortunately, none have proved consistent. To this point, Hough contrasts the famous prediction of the 1975 earthquake in Haicheng, China, with the 1976 Tangshan (China) earthquake, which occurred with no warning and killed upwards of 250,000. Closer to home, an earthquake along the San Andreas fault predicted by the USGS in 1988 didn't materialize until 2004; many geophysicists now believe the best they can do is forecast areas of high probability over decades. Hough concludes that the best way to save lives is through strict construction standards, careful geological evaluation of building sites, and public education, techniques that remain sadly out of reach for the developing world. B&W illus.


"Susan Hough's book about earthquake prediction reminds us that many respectable scientists and numerous nutcases have tried--and failed. Predicting the Unpredictable tells us what has been tested and abandoned and why. It follows the winding path taken by this potentially useful discipline in the past four decades, from the shadows to centre stage and back again. . . . Famous moments in earthquake prediction are dissected for the reader through Hough's diligent research in obscure archives; history will thank her for these abandoned threads."--Roger Bilham, Nature

"Hough's book, however, is not frustrating at all; it offers an enlightening, fair and insightful look at how one science has dealt with the intersection of an extremely hard problem with legitimate public demands for results. Those of us in other fields who read it may find ourselves profiting from the example someday."--Cosma Shalizi, American Scientist

"In this forensic and engaging overview, Susan Hough presents a frank, entertaining and personal review of the history of ideas, practice, personalities and experience in the science of earthquake prediction. Although Hough is a respected scientist, she takes a journalist's viewpoint here, not shying away from legitimate criticism of those she regards as friends, and taking on the credulous at the edge of, or even beyond, the mainstream scientific."--Ian Main, Times Higher Education

"Susan Hough is all about solid science, and her examples of accepted research that turned out to be dead wrong will resonate with readers suspicious of anybody who predicts the future."--Stephen Matchett, Australian

"Earthquake prediction is on everybody's mind when reports of the horrific event make headlines. Why the failure to predict it, especially in this age of scientific and technological achievements? Hough tells readers why in this deeply interesting, enlightening, and entertaining book. . . . The book skillfully weaves the influence of politics, economics, and psychology into this authentic, delightfully perceptive account of earthquake prediction science."--Choice

"[T]his book can be enjoyed by anyone, but it will be enjoyed most by seismologists because it is a treasure of seismological lore, as well as a useful guide and moral support for those participating in what Susan calls the 'combat sport' of seismic prediction research."--F. A. Nava, Pure and Applied Geophysics

"This book is sparkling, entertaining, and a good read and . . . it is a rocking piece of literature. It keeps a delicate balance between the genuine scientific efforts and the difficulties, which scientists face in prediction science."--Afroz A. Shah, Geosciences Journal

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition edition (December 6, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691138168
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691138169
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,237,272 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By H. Potter on July 3, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Californians, like me, know that the Big One will hit us sometime, causing huge destruction and many deaths. We can engineer our structures to stand the shaking as well as possible and stock up on food, water, batteries, toilet paper, and other necessities in advance, but the quake will still kill lots of people. If only we could make an exact prediction so people could evacuate, or at least stay in their wood-framed houses, which handle earthquakes pretty well, we could prevent much loss of life. Can scientists make such predictions?

Susan Hough, a seismologist herself, reviews the history of such predictions, and concludes that they cannot. Perhaps they will be able to in the future. But right now, seismologists can't say exactly what sets off an earthquake; without this understanding, they can't make solid predictions. Attempts have been made to correlate earthquakes and various observed phenomena like tidal pressure, water flow, electric currents in the ground, and unusual animal behavior. But nothing has really worked, at least well enough to mean anything, You can predict that there will be large earthquakes in earthquake country sometime, but you can't give a date and place.

Dr. Hough reviews the whole history of the subject. She writes well and manages to explain the subject in a nontechnical way. All in all, this is an excellent book for those wanting to learn about an interesting scientific subject.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Christopher Scholz on June 14, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The devastating SanFrancisco earthquake of 1906 produced various reactions among scientists and the general population. It provided the first demonstration that earthquakes were the result of slip on a previously recognized fault, which had been steadily strained over time by tectonic movements. Grove Karl Gilbert proposed in 1909 that by measuring such deformation, one could estimate the expected time for the next such earthquake, the basis for what is now called long-term earthquake prediction. He wrote "and now ... the people of the civilized earth--the lay clients of the seismologist--would be glad to know whether the time has yet come for a scientific forecast of the impending tremor." ( 1) Local business leaders took a different view. They proclaimed that the city was destroyed by fire (a far less fearsome menace) and not by the earthquake, ignoring the fact that the earthquake caused both the fires and the city's inability to extinguish them. In 1915, they celebrated the rebirth of the city by hosting the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It took place in an area, later called the Marina District, built on landfill that included earthquake rubble. This latter bit of hubris was rewarded by the extensive damage from liquefaction of that landfill by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. As suggested in the subtitle of Susan Hough's Predicting the Unpredictable, the topic of earthquake prediction--both within the scientific community and in its relation with the public--has always been tumultuous. Thus, as she relates, Bailey Willis, a leading geologist and Stanford professor, led a campaign in the 1920s to call attention to earthquake hazards in California, only to have his reputation besmirched by a counter-campaign led by business interests. Hough, a seismologist with the U.S.Read more ›
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Patrick Murphy on August 25, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Susan Hough is an unusual seismologist in that she holds an excellent, up to date and thorough general knowledge of the whole spectrum of earthquake science, from history passing through geology, cutting edge seismological research and sociology. This may sound obvious for a seismologist, but it's not! Moreover she has an extraordinary ability to convey science in a passionate and accessible way.

In this book Hough takes us through the history of earthquake prediction and illustrates the rise and fall of different prediction disciplines both past and present. She has time too, and courage to discuss fringe and pseudo-scientific procedures which is unusual in her community, but a testimony to Hough's broad spectrum treatment.

The book has a strong US and California byass which on the other hand is only natural, but her colloquial idioms, language and style might be a minor obstacle to european english readers and students.

Do you ever have the feeling after reading a book that you would love to meet the author? This is the feeling I have. Finished Kindle reading it today, in the Alpujarra mountains of southern Spain in a 0.25g hazard zone.
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