"What about Atlantis?"

The question was directed to scientists at a recent press conference dealing with a series of small earthquakes in Columbia. In the midst of a discussion focusing on details of seismicity and its implications for earthquake hazard, this question startled us on the panel and was met by "no comment."

But on reflection, I think the question was a good one. Atlantis -- the foundered continent of mythology -- represents the unknown; more than that, it represents the thrill of exploration and the fascination with mystery at the edges of our understanding. Most scientists are driven by their private Atlantis. What about the scientifically uninitiated? Should they consider the excitement of science beyond their reach? Most emphatically: No. Science should be a standard household element. Everybody has the right and the ability to enjoy it.

Atlantis may also represent pseudoscience, the kind of flowery and non-rigorous approach that makes scientists cringe and may lead to costly mistakes, such as the 1990 prediction of an earthquake in the central United States caused by planetary alignment.

Ironically, scientists have largely themselves to blame for the current popularity of pseudoscience. Practitioners and fans of pseudoscience are simply staking their claim to the excitement of exploration and to the pleasure of contemplating mystery. They are doing so outside science because they legitimately feel alienated by the scientific environment. This environment has become a battleground of competitiveness. Scientists are wary of exposure; they tend to barricade themselves behind their narrow field of research or to speak only in technical terms, with emphasis on results rather than ideas and process.

Not surprisingly, outsiders perceive pettiness and drudgery rather than excitement, which they seek elsewhere. Ultimately, science is the biggest loser in this communication gap, and scientists are beginning to understand the importance of making their science accessible to a wider audience. They need to make sure that "Atlantis" remains within the realm of science.

So, Atlantis is here, in Howard County. The Earth is doing its thing under our feet; little earthquakes felt by many residents of Columbia are the manifestation of rock deformation a mile or so deep -- geology in the making.

Why here, thousands of miles from where earthquakes are supposed to occur, along the San Andreas Fault and the plate boundary in California? Could the earthquakes be related to an old dike -- a crack that was filled with molten rock some 175 million years ago? Why is the stress released by a sequence of small ruptures, rather than a larger, single rupture? As a scientist, I am fascinated by these questions, and I sense that some new answers are within reach.

The interest in the earthquakes in the community of Columbia has been overwhelming -- clearly driven by a touch of apprehension, but also by curiosity. I am thrilled to be able to share so widely my enthusiasm for studying the Columbia


Leonardo Seeber is a seismologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth

Observatory of Columbia University.

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