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LIVE from the NYPL: WHEN THE WORLD GOES MAD: Simon Winchester


October 6, 2005

"The natural catastrophes that have so afflicted the planet in this last year the Indian Ocean tsunami, the New Orleans Hurricane Katrina, and now Hurricane Rita have served to remind us of the fragility of humankind in the face of the wrath of the planet. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was another bitter example of this same collision between nature's whims and human ambition. It took just fifty seconds for the dreams of an entire nation to be crumpled into insignificance; a small seismic shrug that destroyed a city that stood as the ideal symbol of American brio and self-confidence.

But America and the world learned much from 1906, and began a course of scientific self-examination that has led, today, to a profound understanding of the manner in which the planet works. We now know why that earthquake occurred, and why, for that matter, the 2004 tsunami happened. We cannot predict when such things will happen again although we know full well that the northern Indian Ocean and Northern California are very dangerous places to live.

Before we gained this level of understanding, mankind inevitably turned to God to explain and to blame. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina there are new signs that America, frustrated by the ability either to predict or to deal with such catastrophes, is turning to God as a source of answers, yet again. Is this healthy? Is it something that will offer real solutions when for example, and as seems inevitable, San Francisco is ruined by an earthquake once again? Or is there a better way?

How should we really deal with the world when the world goes mad?"
Simon Winchester

The author discusses his latest book A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906.

About Simon Winchester:

Simon Winchester is a journalist, writer and a trained geologist. Born in London and educated at Oxford, Winchester worked on oilrigs in the North Sea before turning his hand to journalism, writing as a correspondent for British newspapers around the world, covering stories from the Watergate affair to the Falklands War. In 1987 he became a full-time writer, exploring topics from the urbane to the catastrophic. His surprise best-seller The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary tells an intriguing behind-the-scenes story of the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, while his 2003 work Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883 looks at a volcanic eruption that affected the entire world in the late nineteenth century. Other books from Winchester have examined topics from England's imperial past to the history of China. A thorough researcher, Winchester confessed to "research rapture" in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.