In the first half of the twentieth century, when seismology was still in in its infancy, renowned geologist Bailey Willis faced off with fellow high-profile scientist Robert T. Hill in a debate with life-or-death consequences for the millions of people migrating west. Their conflict centered on a consequential question: Is southern California earthquake country?
These entwined biographies of Hill and Willis offer a lively, accessible account of the ways that politics and financial interests influenced the development of earthquake science. During this period of debate, severe quakes in Santa Barbara (1925) and Long Beach (1933) caused scores of deaths and a significant amount of damage, offering turning points for scientific knowledge and mainstreaming the idea of earthquake safety.
The Great Quake Debate sheds light on enduring questions surrounding the environmental hazards of our dynamic planet. What challenges face scientists bearing bad news in the public arena? How do we balance risk and the need to sustain communities and cities? And how well has California come to grips with its many faults?
Susan Hough is a research seismologist in Pasadena, California. Her popular-science books include Earthshaking Science: What We Know (and Don’t Know) about Earthquakes and Richter’s Scale: Measure of an Earthquake, Measure of a Man.
"A delightful, timely glimpse into a little-known but fascinating debate among earthquake scientists regarding the seismic threat to southern California."
– Alexandra Witze, coauthor of Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World
"A window into a formative time in earthquake seismology, extraordinarily well-researched and full of personal details."
– Marcia Bjornerud, author of Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World
"An important reminder to live with an open mind and prepare for the hazards that ravage this planet we live on, for our lives may depend on it."
– Janine Krippner, Global Volcanism Program, Smithsonian Institution
"Hough is the ideal author for this story, being a seismologist herself, steeped in the history of her trade, and a masterful raconteur. Whether it's how to reopen the economy after a pandemic, or what to do about climate change, the great quake debate was a precursor for modern tussles between science and policy."
– Callan Bentley, geologist, Northern Virginia Community College