Harper's New Monthly Magazine,  10 (1885), 139–46.

How Earthquakes are Caused

Richard A Proctor




Geology, Vulcanology, Climatology, Meteorology, Mining, Engineering, Methodology, Imagination, Design, Error, Heat, Physics, Energy, Religion, Wonder

People mentioned:

Robert Mallet , James D Dana , Thomas S Hunt

    Explains the various causes of earthquakes and volcanic outbursts, beginning with the 'external changes which intensify [the] action' of 'subterranean disturbance' and then moving on to the 'earth's internal activity' (139). Noting that it 'may surprise many to learn that while earthquakes occur but seldom in England, vibratory undulations or earth-shakes [...] are occurring all the time', observes that the affect of 'changes in atmospheric pressure' on the 'earth's crust'—even of an 'increase of one inch in the height of the mercurial barometer'—is sometimes 'recognizable' in England, as has been recently shown by M Walton Brown at the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers. Claims, however, that in the 'British Isles the effects of such changes, though sensible to scientific observation, are only recognizable otherwise (that is, in a way to attract general observation) by the occurrence of great colliery explosions [...] due, I think, as my friend Mr. W. Mattieu Williams supposes, [...] to the diminution of the pressure of the air over colliery regions, and the increase of pressure elsewhere'. (140) Reflects that the 'idea of causation, which lies at the root of all scientific inquiry, and leads men to look for proximate and then for the remote causes of observed events, has no attraction for those who have little care for scientific research: they are disposed to think that a certain charm disappears from nature's work when its mechanism is too closely examined', but insists that 'in reality there is something even more striking in the thought of what nature is really doing than in vague fancies about what she seems to be doing', and this is the aspect of nature which appeals to a 'true poet' (141). Similarly, states that invariably 'we find that nature's apparent purpose is in reality a result of direct causation', and remarks that the claims of 'a modern writer' that 'nature seems "to have provided [...] against the inroads of the ocean by setting the earth's upheaving forces where they were most wanted"' are 'scarcely more intelligent than that of the old lady who was enthusiastic about nature's mature wisdom and beneficence in making rivers run beside towns' (143). Discusses how the production of heat below the earth's crust accords with 'a principle in physics' which states that 'compressed matter gains the heat which corresponds to the work done, instead of losing it' (144–45). Concludes by asserting that 'All subterranean activity is due [...] to gravity in one form or another' (145), but avers 'how much more profound the mystery revealed than the mystery removed! There is naught in all that science has disclosed to man more utterly—one might say more hopelessly—mysterious than that power by which in an instant, throughout the whole universe, matter acts upon matter. We seem here to stand in the very presence of the Godhead, for it seems as though were but this last veil lifted, and the mystery of gravity removed, we should see revealed the great first cause of all phenomena' (146).

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