Deborah R. Coen
The Earthquake Observers
Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter
University of Chicago Press 2012
Deborah R. Coen‘s new book chronicles how the earthquake emerged and receded as a scientific object through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Half of the chapters in The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter (University of Chicago Press, 2012) treat local experiments in planetary science in Scotland, Switzerland, imperial Austria, and California, all places that relied on networks of ordinary citizens in the course of developing modern seismology. The other chapters look at the international circulation of the stories of earthquake witnesses as evidence for an emerging global science of disaster. Coen’s book is both carefully argued and full of surprises. We learn of Kant producing what was essentially the first work of modern seismology. We learn of a geologist who studied both global tectonics and the ways that some neighborhood drinking-water supplies came from the drainage of cemeteries. We learn of the connection between evidence for earthquakes and ghosts in Britain. (I learned that my hometown of Closter, NJ was the site of an important earthquake observation in the nineteenth century.) The Earthquake Observers excavates a multilingual documentary archive that spans newspapers, seismographs, cartoons, philosophical tracts, romantic letters, and much more. It’s a fascinating multi-sited study of the changing nature of material and human instruments through which communities have understood modern disasters, and it is well worth reading.