A Crack in the Edge of the World

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With this book I both welcome into the world
my first grandchild


and offer an admiring farewell to

Iris Chang

whose nobility, passion, and courage

should serve as a model for all

writers and newborn alike



List of Maps

List of Illustrations


ONE Chronicle: A Year of Living Dangerously

TWO The Temporary City

THREE Chronicle: Such Almost Modern Times

FOUR From Plate to Shining Plate

FIVE Chronicle: The State of the Golden State

SIX How the West Was Made

SEVEN The Mischief Maker

EIGHT Chronicle: City of Mint and Smoke

NINE Overture: The Night Before Dark

TEN The Savage Interruption

ELEVEN Ripples on the Surface of the Pond

EPILOGUE Perspective: Ice and Fire

APPENDIX: On Taking an Earthquake's Measure

With Gratitude

A Glossary of Possibly Unfamiliar Terms and Concepts

Suggestions for Further Reading, with Caveats


P.S Insights, Interviews & More …

About the author

Meet Simon Winchester

About the book

A Conversation with Simon Winchester

Read on

Before the Flood

Have you Read? More by Simon Winchester


Other Works



About the Publisher


North American Tectonic Plate, with the San Andreas Fault as inset

Map of North America, showing past earthquakes, volcanoes, and author's route

San Andreas Fault

Northern section (with San Francisco)

Central section (with Parkfield)

San Francisco and affected area, 1906


Mount Diablo

Lisbon Earthquake

Thingvellir, Iceland

New Madrid Sequence

Meers general store

The Gold Rush

Meteor crater, Arizona

Survey expedition led by John Wesley Powell

Parkfield, California

Aerial photograph of the San Andreas Fault

Road displacement in Olema

Distortion on Route 14 from the San Andreas Fault

Early San Francisco

Early Chinatown, by Arnold Genthe

Enrico Caruso in a fur coat

Enrico Caruso's pencil sketch

Early Chinese seismograph

Seismograph traces from the San Francisco Earthquake

Louis Agassiz

Damage from earthquake

Ansel Adams

Photograph by Arnold Genthe, taken from the top of Sacramento Street, of the fire spreading

Damage from the fire

Brigadier General Frederick Funston

Azusa Street church

Angel Island: poems inscribed on the wooden walls of the detention blocks

Morale-boosting message from

The Alaska pipeline crossing—and being displaced by—the Denali Fault

Geyser at Yellowstone

Seismograph trace, with different wave types

Geological time scale


The created World is but a small
parenthesis in Eternity.

, 1716

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us!

, “To a Louse,” circa 1785


way around the Internet, I stumbled across the home page of an obscure small town in western Ohio with the arresting name of Wapakoneta. It rang a distant bell. Once, very much longer ago, I had passed by the town on what I seem to recall was a driving expedition from Detroit down to Nashville. But, so far as I remember, I didn't stop there, not even for a cup of coffee. It only struck me at the time as being a rather attractive name for a town—a name that was (I subsequently read) a settler adaptation from a word in the language of the local Shawnee Indians.

The town these days is nothing too exciting—which is what one might expect of a place that lies just off that part of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System known as the I-75, not very far from the rather better-known and quintessentially midwestern Ohio city of Lima. It has some 10,000 inhabitants, and the way in which it was built, ordered, and settled a century or so ago makes it very similar to
uncountable other cities found between the bookends of the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians.

It is, in other words, a classic example of the modern Middle American community. A place Sinclair Lewis would have favored. A place of unexceptional ordinariness, known locally for the making of light machinery, car parts, and rubberware, and surrounded by large and generally family-owned farms where soybeans and corn are grown, and where hogs are raised. Reading between the lines, one can perhaps detect the faintest tone of fretfulness: a concern for the town's future, born of such newfangled developments as the spread of manufacturing to Mexico, the outsourcing to Asia of much of the service economy, and the drumbeat growth of China. No doubt wishing to encourage new businesses, the chamber of commerce makes a claim for Wapakoneta that is shared with many other towns similarly unburdened by excessive splendor: that by virtue of its strategically important location, with all the roads and railway lines that run nearby, it is something called “a transportation hub.”

It is a town with a past built on the bedrock of America's previous success, a present that clings by its fingernails to its own notion of stability, and yet a future in which the old Ohio bedrock seems not quite as firm as had initially been supposed, one that most people in consequence do not care to ponder too closely.

However, those who expect Wapakoneta to be only blandly Middle American, and perhaps a little unadventurous and dull, might be surprised to find another side to its history. The astronaut Neil Armstrong, born in the town in 1930, went to the local high school and, quite rightly, no one will let you forget it. (Only two other luminaries of the town are thought worthy of mention, and both are by contrast memorably forgettable: one a heavily mustachioed hero of the Civil War who fought at Vicksburg; the other the screenwriter of
The Bells of St. Mary's
, who also happens to have invented a device allowing naval vessels to lift mines harmlessly from the seabed.)

The town's Web site is where all this is so serendipitously revealed. It opens with a scratchy sound recording of an unidentified baritone reading a launchpad countdown. He follows this with the announcement
of the
, in July 1969, of the Apollo 11 spacecraft, a ship that is destined, he says gravely,
for the moon
. And while his voice is intoning on what turns out to be an original NASA recording, an image of the moon swirls and grows steadily bigger on the screen—until it is eventually replaced, with a booster's flourish, by an image of a bustling community and, in bold type, the name of the town: Wapakoneta.

It is fitting that this small town should celebrate so eagerly the exploration of space: The worldwide excitement over the samples of lunar rock brought back to earth is just one small indication of the value, in real scientific terms, of America's having sent up a man to get them. But there was an unanticipated and less obvious consequence of the expedition, the effect of which has been, in many ways, rather more enduring.

For it appears now that one field of scientific discovery was changed forever by the journeyings of Neil Armstrong and all those others who have gone to the moon in the years since. This sea change has come about specifically in the science of geology, and it is a change that has its origins in a very simple fact. When Wapakoneta's first citizen was teetering gingerly about up there on the moon, he was able to do something that had never been done before, and that provided science with a profound, paradigm-shifting moment of unforgettable symbolism: He was able to stand on the lunar surface and
look back at the earth

To be sure, astronauts who had gone into orbit in the years beforehand were also able to see the totality of the planet; but there was something wholly remarkable in being able to stand upright on one world and gaze back at another, more than 200,000 miles away.

The great American biologist and philosopher Lewis Thomas wrote in 1974 of the symbolic importance of humankind having this new perspective:

Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground, dry as an old bone. Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming, membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant
thing in this part of the cosmos. If you could look long enough, you would see the swirling of the great drifts of white cloud, covering and uncovering the half-hidden masses of land. If you had been looking for a very long, geologic time, you could have seen the continents themselves in motion, drifting apart on their crustal plates, held afloat by the fire beneath. It has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvelously skilled in handling the sun.

Five years later a British chemist and environmentalist named James Lovelock, thinking along much these same lines, used the moon view of the earth to advance a long-considered idea he called the Gaia hypothesis. The idea—which he christened with the ancient Greeks' name for the earth goddess, Gaia or Ge, and which has been rechristened as the even more plausible-sounding Gaia theory, now that his supporters believe so much of it has been proved—holds that the earth in its totality is very much a living entity. It is alive, it is fragile, and everything that is in it preserves a complex balance with everything else in a state of mutually beneficial equilibrium. It so happens, to the dismay of many present-day scientific philosophers, that humankind's current disharmonious behavior is affecting this careful balance; there is a growing feeling that it must be changed, radically and soon, if life on earth is to continue and to flourish.

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