Pathbreaking lab marks centennial with a Hollywood-inspired panel discussion and an earthquake preparedness fair
When it comes to accuracy in earthquake movies, Domniki Asimaki observed, "the better the special effects get, the worse the movie gets."
Asimaki, Caltech professor of mechanical and civil engineering, was part of a panel of researchers and public officials, moderated by seismologist Lucy Jones, that celebrated the centennial of Caltech's Seismological Laboratory through a special event examining the science behind onscreen earthquakes.
The event, Shaking in Our Seats: Earthquake Science on the Big Screen, was presented by the Caltech Science Exchange and the Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society. More than 450 people joined to watch clips—ranging from the absurd to the surprisingly accurate—from the films Earthquake and San Andreas, and the TV movie The Great Los Angeles Earthquake. The experts discussed which scenes showed what could really happen during and after a major earthquake, which were movie madness, and what to do when the next one hits.
"In [Earthquake], buildings are damaged because the ground shakes," Asimaki continued. "When the ground shakes … the building starts swaying as a consequence. By the time you get to [San Andreas], it is these tall buildings that crumble or even explode from the top to the bottom. That doesn't happen."
L.A. County Fire Department's Jon O'Brien emphasized the importance of preparedness. "You saw each of [the movies] show the panic that set in … as the earthquake started. I think that's something that we should all expect when we have an earthquake," O'Brien said. "In the fire service, we have a saying, ‘Train as if your life depends on it, because at the end of the day it does.'"
And what about the giant chasm that opens in the earth in San Andreas? According to Caltech professor of geophysics Zhongwen Zhan, it "is a huge insult to the San Andreas fault. … If the San Andreas fault could speak, it would say, ‘I'm a proud strike-slip fault. I move sideways. I don't just open up like that." In reality, Zhan added, no fault would open up in the dramatic way sometimes depicted in film.
The Caltech Seismo Lab was founded in 1921 and today leads the world in creating the most advanced systems for earthquake measurement and monitoring. (The centennial celebration was postponed from 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) The lab, in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey and JPL, has transformed understanding of earthquakes and geophysics through advanced instrumentation, data science, experimentation, engineering, and public outreach. Seismo Lab scientists and engineers invented early seismometers, launched the use of seismic networks, developed the Richter and moment-magnitude scales for measuring quakes, contributed to policy and regulations that have led to safer buildings, and co-created the earthquake early-warning system ShakeAlert.
During the event, Assemblymember Chris Holden presented a resolution from the California State Assembly to commemorate 100 years of Caltech's contributions in earthquake science, engineering, and early-warning systems.
"Caltech has been a resource and a jewel for this city and for this region, and, quite frankly, for this nation and the world," said Holden. He recognized "all the great work and all the great scientists that have … put us in the strongest position that we're in now to be able to have a better handle on what's happening with the earth around us and earthquakes in particular."
Prior to the program, guests received practical safety information at an on-site preparedness fair with organizations, such as Earthquake Country Alliance, the American Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the California Geological Survey.
"Watching these movies is taking me back in time with the various discussions about prediction over the years," said Lucy Jones. "As somebody who tried to predict earthquakes back when we still thought it might be possible … do you really want two hours to get out of a building or a building that doesn't fall down in the first place? [W]hat really makes a difference is what we can do before the crisis to change the environment that we're working in—not just be prepared for what comes down but how to prevent it in the first place."