A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Earthquakes: how modern are we?.....

I'm just off to record a BBC broadcast on the two London earthquakes of 1750. The first of these occurred around noon on February 8, 1750, and probably measured 4 on the Richter Scale of earthquake magnitude. This would have been felt by people walking along, while free-standing objects would have swayed about. The second, and more powerful, being 5 on the Richter Scale, occurred at 5.30 am on March 8, 1750, waking sleepers, throwing them out of bed, and causing the city's church bells to ring out ominously. Both earthquakes were caused by movements in the underlying London clay, which expands and contracts. Here is an account of the two events by the radical, William Hone, writing some 80 years later:
"On the 8th of March, 1750, an earthquake shook London. The shock was at half past five in the morning. It awoke people from their sleep and frightened them out of their houses. A servant maid in Charterhouse-square, was thrown from her bed, and had her arm broken; bells in several steeples were struck by the chime hammers; great stones were thrown from the new spire of Westminster Abbey; dogs howled in uncommon tones; and fish jumped half a yard above the water.

London had experienced a shock only a month before, namely, on the 8th of February 1750, between 12 and 1 o'clock in the day. At Westminster, the barristers were so alarmed that they imagined the hall was falling." [From: William Hone, The Everyday Book, Vol 1 (1827), at 175].

Although at the heart of the Enlightenment, these London earthquakes were interpreted by scholars and divines as religious in origin, i.e., acts of God, and not as natural events. Indeed, William Whiston (1666 - 1753), the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University and successor to Newton, deemed the earthquakes to be portents of a doom that would arise in 1866. Charles Wesley, no less, also made a dramatic sermon on the events, entitled 'The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes' [NB. This sermon is now attributed to Charles Wesley, although it was originally thought to have been presented by John Wesley]:
"'O come hither, and behold the works of the Lord;
what destruction he hath brought upon the earth!' Psalm xlvi. 8.

Of all the judgments which the righteous God inflicts on sinners here, the most dreadful and destructive is an earthquake. This he has lately brought on our part of the earth, and thereby alarmed our fears, and bid us 'prepare to meet our God!' The shocks which have been felt in divers places, since that which made this city tremble, may convince us that the danger is not over, and ought to keep us still in awe; seeing 'his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.' (Isa. x. 4.)

That I may fall in with the design of Providence at this awful crisis, I shall take occasion from the words of my text,

I. To show that earthquakes are the works of the Lord, and He only bringeth this destruction upon the earth....."

Interestingly, following the dreadful Boxing Day earthquake (2004) off Sumatra, and the resultant tsunami, similar interpretations were offered up all round the world.

This makes me wonder, along with with Bruno Latour: "Have we ever been modern?"

Philip, in the words of Voltaire: "Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth!/ Affrighted gathering of human kind!/ Eternal lingering of useless pain!/ Come, ye philosophers, who cry 'All's well,'/ And contemplate the ruin of the world." And that is just my commuter train this morning into London! Ciao.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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