“I’m everybody’s mother. Women are more reassuring after an event.” This is how Dr. Lucy Jones explains why people in Southern California look for her face on TV after they feel an earthquake. Of course, she’s underselling herself when she says this. We listen to her because she really knows stuff and can explain it in words we can all understand.

After last week’s 7.1 shaker, I became curious about how Lucy Jones, a girl from West LA, got to be “The Earthquake Lady” at CalTech. As I searched online, I became more and more impressed, not only by her intense focus on scientific discovery over many years, but also by her well-rounded education and cross-cultural experience which help her put her earthquake knowledge into human perspective.

She actually attended high school in Taipei, Taiwan. This connection to China goes back two generations to her missionary grandparents who served there before the Communist takeover. Spending her high school years overseas was a very formative experience; she became comfortable with different cultures and values, and she actually learned to speak Chinese. Her Bachelor’s degree, earned at Brown University in 1976, was not in science, but in Chinese Language and Literature. During her senior year, her advisor suggested that if she studied seismology, she might be uniquely prepared to do research on earthquakes in China, once that great nation become more open to Westerners. And that’s exactly what happened in 1979, when she became the first American scientist to enter China after “normalization.” Of the 96 publications listed on her site, twelve of the thirteen earliest (before 1985) were about quakes in China, co-authored by Chinese scientists and originally printed in Chinese. That information helps me understand that she is not just an American expert, but a global leader.

Lucy Jones makes every effort to have a normal life and keep out of the public eye. She lives somewhere in Pasadena with her husband, who is also a seismologist at CalTech. (Wonder what they talk about over dinner?) The couple have two grown sons.

As I mentioned above, her grandparents had been missionaries, and her official bio describes her mother as “a spiritual director with the Episcopal Church,” so there’s a heritage of faith. Lucy herself is currently a lay leader in an Episcopal Church in the Pasadena area. I became curious about how her spiritual journey was intertwined with her expanding scientific understanding. When she’s speaking as a scientist, she doesn’t bring her personal religious beliefs into the discussion, but in interviews she’s done, I found a few clues that she thinks about God when she makes new discoveries in the world he created. When an interviewer asked her, “What do disasters tell us as a metaphor for Western society?” she answered in a way that showed she was familiar with Christian discussions about God’s control and human free will:

I was surprised at how many moral questions get raised by looking at disasters. This is a fundamental Western characteristic: we don’t like [some aspects of] free will — the idea that we’re responsible for our own choices. And a lot of religious people will say, “It’s all in God’s hands.” But God gave us free will. If you look at the Christian tradition, it doesn’t say, “Hand over everything to God.” It says, “You’re responsible for your choices.” I found it really interesting to look at [the writings of] St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. They [developed] the concept of natural evils because they didn’t know how to deal with the fact that an evil happened that wasn’t a result of human choices. And St. Augustine went for the corruption of nature by the devil — Adam’s fall corrupted nature.

In contrast to St. Augustine, Lucy has tried to express how earthquakes have affected our lives in a positive way:

I’m saying this as a geologist: California is beautiful because of earthquakes. Our mountains are incredibly steep because of earthquakes. We aren’t just a desert, like Las Vegas, because of these mountains trapping the rain. The fault at the base of them also attracts groundwater. And springs form along faults. Here in Southern California, 17% of Los Angeles Basin is an active oil field. Those oil fields are here because the faults trapped the oil, and LA is here because we discovered that oil at the turn of the 20th century. And it grew dramatically because of that. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach represent 40% of the imports to the US, and they’re there because the Palos Verdes fault has shaped the coastline and created the cove — all the things that make human life more accessible are here because of the fault. 

The pastor in a Ridgecrest Church that suffered a lot of severe shaking, but no damage, explained in last Sunday’s Children’s Sermon, “God is still busy creating the world he made for us to live in, and the earthquake came because he was moving things around a little.” I think Lucy would agree with that.

Scientists often see things the rest of us miss. Thanks, Lucy.

— Pastor George Van Alstine