Fictional Seismologists

How are seismologists portrayed in popular culture? Armed with Google and a Netflix subscription, I have attacked this question with several hours of arduous research. Here is what I have learned. First of all, seismologists occur in popular culture more often than you might think. We also are surprisingly good looking. We rarely are the villain, more often we are a lone voice warning of impending disaster based on our innovative ideas that the establishment does not take seriously until it is too late. If only they had listened to us earlier! But I digress. Let's get specific, starting with some movies and finishing with some books.


Earthquake (1974) was a big-budget Hollywood spectacular of its era, filmed in "Sensuround" (special machines were installed in the theaters to vibrate the seats), with a John Williams score and a star-studded cast. Charlton Heston plays an engineer torn between his shrewish wife (Ava Gardner) and a young widow (Genevieve Bujold), but so responsible that he insists his clients accept designs that exceed the seismic safety codes.

A moderate earthquake concerns scientists at the "California Seismological Center," including Walter Russell (Kip Niven), who alerts the Director that his calculations show that a large earthquake will occur the next day, provoking the memorable line: "Russell, you are still a graduate assistant. Are you seriously contending that a graduate assistant would be the first scientist in history to pinpoint a major earthquake within 48 hours?" Russell avers that he is merely carrying through the more senior Dr. Adam's work, but unfortunately Dr. Adams soon perishes in the collapse of a research trench across the fault. There follows a discussion about seismologist's responsibility to alert the public, the resulting possible panic, and the damage to the Center's reputation that would result from a false prediction. This is actually pretty realistic in that the comments are similar to statements that I have heard at conferences with respect to the issues that would arise if more accurate earthquake prediction ever became possible.

But seismologists are not the main characters in the movie. The big earthquake occurs about halfway through and lasts a really long time, clearly much bigger than the M 7+ that Russell predicted, and reduces much of L.A. to a smoldering wasteland. The rest of the movie follows intersecting plot lines as the characters respond to the ensuing destruction and chaos, but nonetheless highlights certain universal truths: (1) People in earthquakes are often killed by large, falling objects, (2) Never take the elevator during a disaster movie, and (3) Charlton Heston was way too old to be romancing Genevieve Bujold.

Just Between Friends

In the little-seen 1986 Just Between Friends, Ted Danson plays philandering seismologist Tom Davis from the "California Seismological Center" in Pasadena. A youthful Sam Waterston plays his seismology colleague, Harry. But most of the screen time goes to his wife Holly (Mary Tyler Moore) and her new best friend, Sandy (Christine Lahti), who, awkwardly for their friendship, has been having an affair with Tom. The seismology lab and Tom's office look realistic, but the accuracy slips when a M 5.3 earthquake is described as causing "moderate to heavy damage as far north as Bakersfield and as far south as San Diego."

Some memorable lines occur when Tom comes home late after this quake, and starts getting frisky with Holly, who says, "Earthquakes always do this to you, don't they?"
"They do. They get me all horny," he says. "Guess that's why I chose the field, huh?"
The movie is bad, but not actually as bad as this dialog implies (it's no camp classic). I can't say much more without giving away a major plot twist.

A View To A Kill

A View To A Kill lasts 130 minutes but seems much longer. I rented this 1985 James Bond movie, after reading on a movie web site that it features a seismologist named Stacy Sutton, played by Tanya Roberts, who is the "worst Bond girl ever." The movie is indeed awful, with Roger Moore at his aging, pun-cracking worst, Grace Jones as an exotic villainess, fat comical San Francisco cops, and a title song by Duran Duran. The main plot, about Max Zorin's (Christopher Walken's) plot to destroy Silicon Valley by lubricating the Hayward and San Andreas faults to trigger a giant earthquake, thus cornering the world market in microchips, does not start until an hour into the movie, and we don't meet Miss Sutton until the 73 minute mark. Disappointingly, she calls herself a geologist, not a seismologist, although she does own some pets she tells Bond are "extremely sensitive to seismic activity." She also sighs, squeals, and screams most annoyingly during the action sequences. Here's the most interesting seismology dialog:

Sutton: You know, Zorin just has to blast through the bottom of these lakes ... to flood the fault.
Bond: And create a double earthquake?
Sutton: Yes, except right beneath us is the key geological lock that keeps the faults from moving at once.
Bond: All these explosives ... would they be enough to break the lock?
Sutton: Of course. If they go off, both faults move at once.
Bond: Silicon Valley, and everything in it, submerged forever.
Sutton: If it happened at the peak of the spring tide for maximum effect.

Classic lines indeed, but not worth sitting through the whole movie to hear.


Tremors is a 1990 comic horror movie in which the residents of a tiny isolated desert town are attacked by giant subterranean worms with nasty tentacle-like tongues. The creatures generate vibrations as they tunnel through the ground, which are detected by seismographs operated by graduate student Rhonda LaBeck (Finn Carter) from "Mesa State University." When handymen Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward) mistake her for a geologist, she cheerfully explains "Well, actually seismology---earthquakes." Her seismic stations have onsite drum recorders, with needles that swing wildly when the monsters are nearby. As various town residents meet grisly ends, Rhonda proves a resourceful companion to Val and Earl, at one point suggesting a pole-vaulting technique to move from the safety of one large boulder to another. She wins a kiss from Kevin Bacon in the ending scene. It must be acknowledged that there is not a lot of seismology in the movie, but it has a certain logic once you accept its ridiculous premise. If you don't mind a moderate amount of gore, you will likely enjoy its B-movie fun. Audiences must have agreed because it spawned three additional movies and a 13-episode TV series, none of which, alas, feature any seismologists.

Fault Lines

The astonishing sales of the 1992 novel The Bridges of Madison County prompted a number of books about middle-aged women who rediscover passion through affairs with free-spirited men. In Anne Rivers Siddon's 1996 Fault Lines, Merritt Fowler travels to California and meets T.C. Bridgewater, a bare-footed, self-taught seismologist who lives in the Santa Cruz mountains and makes drum recorders out of oatmeal cartons. T.C. is so sensitive that he can sense earthquake precursors through the soles of his feet. He soon charms Merritt with his emotional honesty and rustic ways. Between bouts of lovemaking he describes plate tectonics and his theories about an impending giant earthquake. The sex and seismicity rates increase during the later parts of the book, even coinciding at one point, leading T.C to make an unfortunate Hemingway allusion, asking if the earth moved for her. I have not read any other Siddon novels, nor am I likely to, after encountering passages such as:

If he had an earthquake madness in him, well, I was unlikely to be disaccommodated by that. The rest of him was as whole and strong and as open as the earth and air of his mountains. That part drew me to it as if he had a powerful magnet deep in the center of him, and I a core of warm iron.

The Hammer of Eden

Ken Follett's 1998 suspense thriller, The Hammer of Eden, has good seismologists and bad seismologists. Good-looking Michael Quercus is a Berkeley professor who knows how to map the critical stress points where earthquakes can be triggered. His estranged former-graduate-student wife Melanie (described as even better looking) joins a commune led by a charismatic psychopath called Priest. To save the commune from being flooded by a planned reservoir, they devise a plan to blackmail the government by threatening to trigger earthquakes using a stolen seismic vibrator truck. Needless to say, they trigger several before they are stopped by young FBI agent Judy Maddox (also pretty good looking, especially when she wears her blue Armani suit with the short skirt). The plot moves, as they say, at a breakneck pace, with lots of violent and/or sexual encounters between the characters. The science is portrayed fairly realistically, once you accept the main plot device---that a vibrator truck can trigger earthquakes. Although good triumphs in the end, Follett gives many of the best lines, and most of the sex, to Priest. Before triggering one earthquake, he says "I don't care if I die here. I can't raise my children in suburban America."

Strong Motion

Before Jonathan Franzen wrote his runaway bestseller The Corrections and long before he appeared on the cover of Time magazine for Freedom, he wrote two other novels. The second is the 1992 Strong Motion and some of the characters are seismology graduate students at Harvard. My edition even has little seismograms below the chapter numbers and a few figures, including a seismicity map and a focal mechanism diagram. Because Franzen worked for a time at the Harvard Seismology Lab and because he writes well, his observations ring true. For example, he describes battles among the students over job priorities and disk space on the department computer that recall some of my own experiences as a grad student in the 1980s. One of the scientific subplots involves induced seismicity and seems reasonably plausible. This is an ambitious and complex book, which involves interactions among a variety of characters, but it's a compelling read. Indeed, I was drawn so much into the story that I began wondering what some of the characters would think about my own research. Strong Motion achieved a tiny fraction of the sales of The Corrections, but is just as good. It just goes to show, unfortunately, that dysfunctional families are a more universal theme than seismology graduate students. I saved the best for last, so Strong Motion is my pick of the group.