Photo-Illustration: The Cup; Photo: Hélène Berger
Dr. Lucy Jones is the go-to person when things literally go wrong day or night. Renowned seismologist with decades of experience working for the U.S. Geological Survey, Jones’ understanding of earthquakes and her ability to translate that for the rest of us has made her a celebrity for those living in earthquake-prone regions of the western United States.the Beyoncé of earthquakeswas a response on Peril!and educated Conan O’Brien by surviving the “great”. And when an earthquake strikes in her native Southern California, her handle is likely to light up your feed as she answers questions and provides context for her more than 100,000 people. Twitter followers.
be the “Meryl Streep of Government Service(yes, it’s also called that) was never Jones’ plan, but she has recognized over the years that establishing better risk communication is as vital as studying the risk itself. . She led initiatives to develop seismic safety orders and created the big shake break through, persuading millions of people to practice dropping, covering and holding – the recommended safety measures in the event of an earthquake.
Since retiring from her government job in 2016, Jones has published a book, launched a Podcastand started The Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Societywhile taking the time to compose his own music. Here’s how she does it.
On her morning routine:
I start every morning with about 40 minutes of exercise. I found that I had to exercise before I woke up enough to remember how much I hate it. I then walk the few stairs down the hall to my office/music room and sit down at the computer. I clean up the emails I’ve received overnight, then rummage through whatever I’m working on.
In a typical working day:
I have two projects that are taking up a lot of my time right now. The first is to help the Caltech Seismological Laboratory develop a community engagement program. I work with graduate students to develop a course to give to high school students, introducing them to seismology.
The second project is called Tempo: Music for Climate Action. It is a multicultural and interdisciplinary project aiming to use the power of music to alter the emotional climate around climate change. I bring together climatologists who know what it takes to address the climate crisis and social scientists who understand the emotional barriers to addressing the issue with musicians who understand how to invoke emotion. The goal is to create a community of people dedicated to solving the climate problem and creating music that will help inspire more people to do what needs to be done. We started as a bicultural program between the United States and Japan, but eventually hope to become a global community.
On starting a podcast during the pandemic:
I had done a bit of public speaking, but that pretty much disappeared [with COVID]. My colleague, John Bwarie, suggested starting the podcast because, with the fear of the pandemic, people needed science more than ever. Everyone who lived there had to undertake their own risk assessment. Risk assessment is a big part of what I did for the last half of my career, and I realized people needed to understand how to approach the problem. It was something I could help.
On accepting career changes:
I think one of the keys to my success has been the ability to pivot when needed to take advantage of serendipity. I would never have imagined having such a role in front of the public. When I was in graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I learned that I had to say I was studying geophysics because most people on the East Coast didn’t know what seismology was. I entered this field only thinking of it as scientific research. I loved physics, but I didn’t want to work in bomb design. I wanted to learn how to predict earthquakes and save the world, or at least the part unfortunate enough to live near the San Andreas Fault.
I chose to work for the USGS because I wanted science to be used for the public good. When I recognized the gap between science and society, I left government to start my nonprofit and write my book, The Great.
I now realize that what is coming from climate change is so serious that I cannot in good conscience promote seismic safety without climate resilience. I again pivoted and added a new focus to my nonprofit work, using what I learned about how people respond to scientific risk information to help climate scientists develop new approaches to communication.
On feeling like she’s “succeeded” professionally:
Like many scientists, I struggled with self-confidence. Because the easiest person to fool is yourself, the scientific peer review system asks your colleagues to read and attack your articles. You have to be sure you’re right, but it’s also very hard on your self-esteem.
My greatest sense of accomplishment came during my last ten years at the USGS leading what became known as the SAFRR (Science Application for Risk Reduction) project. It was an explicit decision to move away from scientific competition and focus on the societal interface. It turned out that the need was huge – and it was exciting research. Creating the first Great ShakeOut and bringing over 5 million people – a quarter of Southern California’s population – to participate that first year has been exciting and fulfilling.
But the high point was 2015 when I worked with the Mayor of Los Angeles to develop seismic safety policies based on our science. We have created the largest seismic safety improvement ever in California. All of the ordinances passed unanimously by the city council, and I received the Service to America Medal at a gala in Washington, DC These outward accomplishments made it easy to internalize success.
On being the “Beyoncé of earthquakes” and her other nicknames:
It makes me smile, and it’s a bit embarrassing. But if it helps people listen more so they can take action to build resilience in the face of the inevitable earthquake, I’ll take it. The only one I don’t like is “earthquake lady”. Male scientists were called seismologists and female scientists were called earthquake ladies. It was a way of saying that we were something less than expert.
I got into science because of the joy I find in research. There is nothing quite like the feeling you get when you recognize a basic physical reality and know that you are the first person to know it. I had the ambition to make these discoveries.
The change over time has been the shift in focus from mere knowledge to knowledge that is used to improve people’s lives. I end my career by creating a non-profit organization to promote the understanding and use of science by society in general. I try to inspire early career scientists to collaborate more with policy and decision makers to create a safer society.
On “have it all”:
Believing that you can have it all is a sure path to disappointment. Career demands take you away from your family, and your family takes you away from your career. Making the decision to work part-time for ten years while one of our children was struggling was the best decision I have ever made – I was able to give the best of what I had to the parts of the family and career who needed it.
On the use of social media for science communication:
The only social network I use is Twitter, which I joined after an earthquake in 2014. People are turning to social media to confirm and help them process what they are going through or think they have gone through. Quakebots at Caltech and other places, sharing earthquake data; I add how to think about information – what does it mean to you?
Sometimes people get mad if I don’t tweet right away, but some earthquakes aren’t worth the 280 characters.
At the end :
Music is my most important safety valve. I play the viola da gamba, one of the first stringed instruments a bit like a cross between a cello and a guitar. I play in Los Angeles Baroque, as well as in small ensembles. Nothing calms my soul like a few hours of Telemann or Bach.
I take a long walk every night with my husband in our neighborhood. Sometimes we watch TV, but when I really want to relax my brain, I read science fiction like I’ve done since my dad introduced me to Isaac Asimov when I was 14. He said I was a precocious 14 year old girl. , like the heroine of Second Foundation. I wasn’t sure what “early” meant, so I read the book to see what it said about me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.