The Man Who Mapped the Shaking Earth

Director: William Twycross. 2013

What European other than Marco Polo, on taking up a job in the Far East, would travel overland? John Milne. No posh Brit he: the Victorian geologist reached Japan mainly by train, foot and pack animal, ostensibly to avoid seasickness. As I write this, flying to Japan across eastern Siberia, I am amazed. I detect a whiff of the iconoclast.

John Milne (left) with his wife Tone, seismologist Boris Galitzin and a lamp-post seismometer in 1910. Credit: CARISBROOKE CASTLE MUSEUM

Milne's motivation for that epic journey was an invitation from Japanese officials of the Meiji era (1868–1912) to establish an Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo, and to transfer Western knowledge to Japan. After arriving in 1875 to teach geology and mining, he became aware of the frequency of earthquakes and their damaging effects. Building designs transplanted from the West performed particularly poorly. By 1878, Milne determined that to study earthquake damage properly, he needed to quantify seismicity — or the frequency and strength of earthquakes — instrumentally. His goal became to build a standard seismometer and establish a seismic network across Japan. That plan was the inception of modern global seismology.

To mark this year's centenary of Milne's death, his great-nephew William Twycross made a documentary, The Man Who Mapped the Shaking Earth. Shown in July at the assembly of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics in Gothenburg, Sweden, the film immerses us in Milne's life in science, including his photographs and sketches. Often shooting on location, Twycross and his film crew trace Milne's travels in Iceland, the Canadian island of Newfoundland, Britain, Russia and the United States, as well as to and in Japan. Twycross imposes a fine narrative continuity despite the logistical complexities.

Milne's astonishing saga began at King's College London, where he studied science. His published account of a study trip to Iceland in 1871, when he was 21, showed him to be a competent diarist and illustrator, and won him a scholarship to the Royal School of Mines (now part of Imperial College London). He suspended his studies there to complete a commercial geological survey of Newfoundland, where he incidentally studied the recently extinct great auk. On a Royal Geographical Society expedition to Egypt's Sinai peninsula in 1874, he marshalled his new skills in geology and illustration to create geographical cross-sections of the region — work that paved the way for his post in Japan.

Once there, he published his trans-Asian travelogue in the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, and climbed, studied, sketched and even discovered some volcanoes, one of which is now named Milne. He made archaeological and anthropological studies of the indigenous Ainu culture and people of the northern Japanese islands, and met his wife-to-be, Tone Horikawa. After the Tokyo–Yokohama earthquake of 1880, he established the Seismological Society of Japan and its journal — both world firsts. The Royal Society of London elected him a fellow in 1887.

In 1895, Milne left Japan with Tone for the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of Britain, building a seismological observatory there and working towards the standardization of instruments such as the horizontal pendulum seismograph to record earthquakes worldwide. The captaincy of the island's Newport Golf Club and membership of the local photography and chess clubs occupied his idle moments. By 1903 he had set up the world's first global seismic network, with 40 stations encompassing every continent reporting to his observatory, Shide Hill House. He also published the periodic Shide Circular Reports on Earthquakes from 1900 to 1912, a precursor to the seismological catalogues accumulated by national agencies around the world. His obituary (see Nature 91, 587–588; 1913) hints at some resistance to coordinating his network with the International Seismological Association — not surprising, given his personal achievement.

The Man Who Mapped the Shaking Earth paints an unembellished portrait of a dedicated visionary. Milne wove the threads of seismic instrumentation and observation into a tool to develop fundamental knowledge of how Earth works. What could be more compelling or inspiring to a student of seismology or the history of science?