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A crack in the edge of t.., p.1
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       A Crack in the Edge of the World, p.1

           Simon Winchester
A Crack in the Edge of the World


  With this book I both welcome into the world

  my first grandchild,


  and offer an admiring farewell to

  Iris Chang

  whose nobility, passion, and courage

  should serve as a model for all,

  writers and newborn alike.



  List of Maps

  List of Illustrations


  ONE Chronicle: A Year of Living Dangerously

  TWO The Temporary City

  THREE Chronicle: Such Almost Modern Times

  FOUR From Plate to Shining Plate

  FIVE Chronicle: The State of the Golden State

  SIX How the West Was Made

  SEVEN The Mischief Maker

  EIGHT Chronicle: City of Mint and Smoke

  NINE Overture: The Night Before Dark

  TEN The Savage Interruption

  ELEVEN Ripples on the Surface of the Pond

  EPILOGUE Perspective: Ice and Fire

  APPENDIX: On Taking an Earthquake’s Measure

  With Gratitude

  A Glossary of Possibly Unfamiliar Terms and Concepts

  Suggestions for Further Reading, with Caveats


  P.S Insights, Interviews & More …

  About the author

  Meet Simon Winchester

  About the book

  A Conversation with Simon Winchester

  Read on

  Before the Flood

  Have you Read? More by Simon Winchester


  Other Works



  About the Publisher


  North American Tectonic Plate, with the San Andreas Fault as inset

  Map of North America, showing past earthquakes, volcanoes, and author’s route

  San Andreas Fault

  Northern section (with San Francisco)

  Central section (with Parkfield)

  San Francisco and affected area, 1906


  Mount Diablo

  Lisbon Earthquake

  Thingvellir, Iceland

  New Madrid Sequence

  Meers general store

  The Gold Rush

  Meteor crater, Arizona

  Survey expedition led by John Wesley Powell

  Parkfield, California

  Aerial photograph of the San Andreas Fault

  Road displacement in Olema

  Distortion on Route 14 from the San Andreas Fault

  Early San Francisco

  Early Chinatown, by Arnold Genthe

  Enrico Caruso in a fur coat

  Enrico Caruso’s pencil sketch

  Early Chinese seismograph

  Seismograph traces from the San Francisco Earthquake

  Louis Agassiz

  Damage from earthquake

  Ansel Adams

  Photograph by Arnold Genthe, taken from the top of Sacramento Street, of the fire spreading

  Damage from the fire

  Brigadier General Frederick Funston

  Azusa Street church

  Angel Island: poems inscribed on the wooden walls of the detention blocks

  Morale-boosting message from Sunset magazine

  The Alaska pipeline crossing—and being displaced by—the Denali Fault

  Geyser at Yellowstone

  Seismograph trace, with different wave types

  Geological time scale


  The created World is but a small

  parenthesis in Eternity.


  O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

  To see oursels as others see us!

  ROBERT BURNS, “To a Louse,” circa 1785


  SOME WHILE AGO, WHEN I WAS HALF-IDLY BROWSING MY way around the Internet, I stumbled across the home page of an obscure small town in western Ohio with the arresting name of Wapakoneta. It rang a distant bell. Once, very much longer ago, I had passed by the town on what I seem to recall was a driving expedition from Detroit down to Nashville. But, so far as I remember, I didn’t stop there, not even for a cup of coffee. It only struck me at the time as being a rather attractive name for a town—a name that was (I subsequently read) a settler adaptation from a word in the language of the local Shawnee Indians.

  The town these days is nothing too exciting—which is what one might expect of a place that lies just off that part of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System known as the I-75, not very far from the rather better-known and quintessentially midwestern Ohio city of Lima. It has some 10,000 inhabitants, and the way in which it was built, ordered, and settled a century or so ago makes it very similar to uncountable other cities found between the bookends of the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians.

  It is, in other words, a classic example of the modern Middle American community. A place Sinclair Lewis would have favored. A place of unexceptional ordinariness, known locally for the making of light machinery, car parts, and rubberware, and surrounded by large and generally family-owned farms where soybeans and corn are grown, and where hogs are raised. Reading between the lines, one can perhaps detect the faintest tone of fretfulness: a concern for the town’s future, born of such newfangled developments as the spread of manufacturing to Mexico, the outsourcing to Asia of much of the service economy, and the drumbeat growth of China. No doubt wishing to encourage new businesses, the chamber of commerce makes a claim for Wapakoneta that is shared with many other towns similarly unburdened by excessive splendor: that by virtue of its strategically important location, with all the roads and railway lines that run nearby, it is something called “a transportation hub.”

  It is a town with a past built on the bedrock of America’s previous success, a present that clings by its fingernails to its own notion of stability, and yet a future in which the old Ohio bedrock seems not quite as firm as had initially been supposed, one that most people in consequence do not care to ponder too closely.

  However, those who expect Wapakoneta to be only blandly Middle American, and perhaps a little unadventurous and dull, might be surprised to find another side to its history. The astronaut Neil Armstrong, born in the town in 1930, went to the local high school and, quite rightly, no one will let you forget it. (Only two other luminaries of the town are thought worthy of mention, and both are by contrast memorably forgettable: one a heavily mustachioed hero of the Civil War who fought at Vicksburg; the other the screenwriter of The Bells of St. Mary’s, who also happens to have invented a device allowing naval vessels to lift mines harmlessly from the seabed.)

  The town’s Web site is where all this is so serendipitously revealed. It opens with a scratchy sound recording of an unidentified baritone reading a launchpad countdown. He follows this with the announcement of the liftoff, in July 1969, of the Apollo 11 spacecraft, a ship that is destined, he says gravely, for the moon. And while his voice is intoning on what turns out to be an original NASA recording, an image of the moon swirls and grows steadily bigger on the screen—until it is eventually replaced, with a booster’s flourish, by an image of a bustling community and, in bold type, the name of the town: Wapakoneta.

  It is fitting that this small town should celebrate so eagerly the exploration of space: The worldwide excitement over the samples of lunar rock brought back to earth is just one small indication of the value, in real scientific terms, of America’s having sent up a man to get them. But there was an unanticipated and less obvious consequence of the expedition, the effect of which has been, in many wa
ys, rather more enduring.

  For it appears now that one field of scientific discovery was changed forever by the journeyings of Neil Armstrong and all those others who have gone to the moon in the years since. This sea change has come about specifically in the science of geology, and it is a change that has its origins in a very simple fact. When Wapakoneta’s first citizen was teetering gingerly about up there on the moon, he was able to do something that had never been done before, and that provided science with a profound, paradigm-shifting moment of unforgettable symbolism: He was able to stand on the lunar surface and look back at the earth.

  To be sure, astronauts who had gone into orbit in the years beforehand were also able to see the totality of the planet; but there was something wholly remarkable in being able to stand upright on one world and gaze back at another, more than 200,000 miles away.

  The great American biologist and philosopher Lewis Thomas wrote in 1974 of the symbolic importance of humankind having this new perspective:

  Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground, dry as an old bone. Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming, membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos. If you could look long enough, you would see the swirling of the great drifts of white cloud, covering and uncovering the half-hidden masses of land. If you had been looking for a very long, geologic time, you could have seen the continents themselves in motion, drifting apart on their crustal plates, held afloat by the fire beneath. It has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvelously skilled in handling the sun.

  Five years later a British chemist and environmentalist named James Lovelock, thinking along much these same lines, used the moon view of the earth to advance a long-considered idea he called the Gaia hypothesis. The idea—which he christened with the ancient Greeks’ name for the earth goddess, Gaia or Ge, and which has been rechristened as the even more plausible-sounding Gaia theory, now that his supporters believe so much of it has been proved—holds that the earth in its totality is very much a living entity. It is alive, it is fragile, and everything that is in it preserves a complex balance with everything else in a state of mutually beneficial equilibrium. It so happens, to the dismay of many present-day scientific philosophers, that humankind’s current disharmonious behavior is affecting this careful balance; there is a growing feeling that it must be changed, radically and soon, if life on earth is to continue and to flourish.

  This is not an environmental book by any means. It is, more simply, the story of one remarkable and tragic event that befell California a century ago, when a 300-mile-long swath of the earth briefly shifted, wrecking the cities that lay atop it. But, though it is not intended to be a Gaia book, it seems right to tell the story of the events that so ruined the city of San Francisco in 1906 within the context of the Gaia idea. There is, for a start, an interesting synchronicity at work: At the moment when Thomas and Lovelock were putting forward their ideas (in the late 1960s, at the same time as the beginning of space travel and, in part, of course, because of it), the geological sciences were also changing very profoundly, as we shall see.

  Neil Armstrong was able to gaze across the quarter million miles that separate these two small planetary bodies and look directly toward that area of America from which he had come, at the hills and valleys of the selfsame rocks where he had grown up—rocks that established geology and the fossil record tell us belong to the Silurian Age. And I have no doubt that it was in large measure because of this most extraordinary vision—extraordinary both for Neil Armstrong and, in time, for the rest of us, too—that the birth was signaled of what is now coming to be regarded as an entirely new science. It was a science that was born and then helped to its feet quite simply by virtue of this new perspective that Neil Armstrong’s view, even though it had been long anticipated by those who sent him and his colleagues into space, would shed on our planet.

  What he saw—and what we saw through his eyes, which we now perhaps take somewhat for granted—was a thing of incredible and fragile beauty. It was a floating near-spherical body, tricked out in deep blue and pale green, with the white of polar ice and mountain summits, with great gray swirls and sheets of clouds and storms, and with the terminator line, that divides darkness and light seeming to sweep slowly across the planet’s face as it turned into and out of the sun. It was a lovely aspect to contemplate. And it was a view that in time compelled humankind to take stock.

  “To see oursels as others see us,” as Robert Burns had written. Here and now, all of sudden, we realized that we could do just that—and, with this unanticipated ability to do so, something about us suddenly changed. Almost overnight, and essentially because of this new world-view to which we had access, we discovered a whole raft of new reasons to ponder the oldest of age-old questions: just where we stood in the celestial scheme of things, what the universe and its creation might mean, and how the very earth itself may have first come into being. And such ruminations led, in short order, to the makings of the scientific revolution—and, most specifically, to the geological revolution—that is central to this story.


  Like alchemy and the medicine of the leech and the bleeding rod, the Old Geology is a science born long ago (most formally in the eighteenth century): one that, unlike so many of its sister sciences—chemistry, physics, medicine, and astronomy—never truly left the era of its making. Since its beginnings geology has been a field mired in some alluvial quagmire, defined by dusty cases of fossils, barely comprehensible diagrams of crystals, and the different kinds of breaks that were made in the earth’s surface (as well as by unlovely Continental words like graben, gabbro, and graywacke), and explained with cracked-varnish wall roller charts showing how the world may have looked at the time of the Permian Period. To me it remains the most lyrical and romantic of the sciences; but in terms of glamor, and when compared with astrophysics or molecular biology, the Old Geology is somewhat wanting.

  The New Geology is, on the other hand, a creature fashioned wholly from the science of the space age, from the attitude that was born when Neil Armstrong first looked back and gazed at the earth. It is a science that now presents us with an entire canon of new ways in which we might look at this planet and at our stellar and solar neighbors.

  It seems to me quite fair and proper that the principles of this new science should underpin everything that follows: the terrifying and extraordinary event that enfolded the small but fast-growing western American city of San Francisco one twilit California morning in the middle of April 1906.

  Many other scientific disciplines that are revolutionary and dauntingly modern—cosmology, genetic engineering, quantum mechanics—have been formed or founded in recent years, and had no past to hold them back. But geology is different. It is a very old science indeed and hugely proud of its origins: Portraits of the bearded ancients of its founding priesthood invariably hang in esteemed positions in departments from Anchorage to Adelaide. Its antiquity, however, has long been a problem for it, one that has tended to inhibit too many of its practitioners from escaping the glutinous hold of its earliest ideas. Students who remember measuring the umbos of brachiopods or trying to fathom the mysteries of recumbent folding can reach through the centuries and join hands with students who were taught the same topics at the time of George IV and President John Adams. It was only when the professors happened to mention in more modern classes such wonders as the K-T boundary event, with the massive dinosaur extinctions that were mysteriously triggered at the end of the Cretaceous Period (perhaps by a monstrous collision with an immense asteroid), that geology as taught seemed, briefly, to come alive.

  Now, however, thanks to a number of recent developments—space travel being one of them, the most spectacular but in terms of science not the most important
geology has suddenly and seriously changed, and at a pace so rapid as to bewilder and astonish all who come up against it anew, or return to it after a while away. It is probably fair to say that never before has any long-existing science been remodeled and reworked so profoundly, so suddenly, and in so short a time. Wholly unimagined visions and possibilities allow us to contemplate our planet in brand-new ways. These means have evolved right before our eyes, and, to the less prescient among us, they have done so well-nigh invisibly and, moreover, in rather less than half a century.

  Thanks to the attitudes and instruments and scientific philosophies of the new science, all the events of great geological moment—with chief among them the earthquakes and volcanoes that so plague humankind—can now be seen and interpreted in an entirely fresh context, and in a manner that had rarely before occurred to those who practiced the confusing and cobweb-bound older science with which (from memories of school and university) we are still so vaguely familiar.

  IT WAS NOT NEIL ARMSTRONG’S venture alone that brought about this transformation. It is fair to say that geology flowered as rapidly as it did because at almost the exact same moment as the rockets started to soar up through the stratosphere from their bases in Florida (and from the cosmodromes in Baikonur—for this new perspective was one offered to Russian scientists too, of course) something else occurred. A previously little-known professor in Toronto (a man whose very ordinary surname—Wilson—might have kept him marooned in the shadows forever, had not one of his given names—Tuzo—been so strange) drew up the foundations of an entirely new geological subdiscipline, the now all-too-familiar theory known as plate tectonics.

  Plate tectonics and space travel each burst onto the world stage at the same time—plate tectonics becoming fully developed by 1967, manned lunar exploring getting under way in 1969—and it is this that led to the unprecedented evolution of the science that was common to both. I shall try to explain the more relevant details of plate tectonics later in the story; but in essence it was a theory that also happened to encourage its believers to stand back, as it were, just as Neil Armstrong was doing at that moment. Plate tectonics allowed us—compelled us, even—to view the world as a complete entity, for the first time to look and to see the earth entire.

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