There’s a fault line in the floor of Patrick Abbott’s living room.
The TV news crews that routinely walk through his home to interview him about all manner of geological events — from earthquakes to tar balls — rarely notice it, he says. He’s even suggested it as stock video footage.
But the news crews just smile and step over it, choosing instead to zoom in on the attributes that have made him a TV personality in his own right: bright blue eyes and a horseshoe mustache; wildly hued shirts and suits uncharacteristic of a geologist and academic; and an ability to put complex scientific data into handy sound bites.
An earthquake isn’t just an earthquake in Abbott-speak; it’s “jolt, jam, jump, chaos.”
The limestone tiles on Abbott’s living room floor are laid in rows. Like layers of the Earth, each row of fossiliferous rock is a different color, carefully arranged by Abbott himself according to each tile’s geological age. And there, right through the middle and at an angle, is a stripe of green mosaic tiles. The fault line. Like tectonic plates shifting Earth’s lithosphere, along this fracture the flooring design noticeably shifts.
You might mistake this for geologist humor. But Abbott says he can’t tell a joke, that he lacks comedic timing.
What he does have is a wide lens on the world. He’s a history buff who watches the progression of time in the rocks, the dirt, the water, animals, plants and people.
“Geology really is history — history of the Earth, history of life,” Abbott says. “You get into human history, to me that’s just the most recent part of that.”
Like his fossilized flooring, the man is nuanced.
In homage to Abbott’s years as a college professor, here’s a quiz. Which of these is true?
a. Abbott was cast as The Professor on the short-lived reality TV show The Real Gilligan’s Island when the production company noticed his unusually high marks on RateMyProfessors.com.
b. He’s been to every state in the United States. Even North Dakota.
c. He was a high school cheerleader.
d. He’s an expert on Civil War commander George Armstrong Custer.
e. All of the above.
If you guessed “e”, give yourself an “A” in Abbott 101. If you knew Abbott was the first castaway voted off Gilligan’s Island, followed by Rachel Hunter as Ginger, you probably watched too much reality TV in 2004.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention I took Abbott’s “Natural Disasters” general education class at San Diego State University in the mid-1990s. I don’t remember what grade I got. But I do remember his tornado demonstration. You can still watch it. Don’t miss the shiny silver shirt.
Abbott is a native San Diegan, and an alumnus of SDSU and the University of Texas at Austin. He taught full-time at SDSU from 1971 until 2005, honing his public-speaking skills while crafting his concept of “edu-tainment.”
“What’s my job? I’ve got to get people to come in before I can really teach them,” Abbott says.
Abbott’s college lectures were theatrical. He paced the room while speaking dramatically into his microphone. In the middle of a talk on lightning, Abbott might shut off the lights, plunging the massive lecture hall into total darkness.
Even his attire was part of the show. He color-coordinated his suits to the topic of the day. A blue blazer was just the thing for a lecture on floods, he says.
His wardrobe expanded as he was asked to appear on TV alongside well-coiffed news anchors. “I started buying more coats and ties so I wouldn’t be the typical professor with their old, worn-out blue coat over their beige pants,” he says.
Abbott says journalists often turn to him for perspective because he’s so readily available. He’ll answer any phone call 24/7, and he’ll do his best to translate the science into layman’s terms.
“There are a lot of people in town with as much expertise as me,” Abbott says.
“One difference is those large lecture halls I taught. You teach those for so many years, you learn how to say things in more accessible English. Whereas those whose whole life is just doing seismology, they lapse into acronyms or polysyllabic words that hinder learning.
“In my opinion, if somebody really understands a subject, they can explain it in everyday English.”
When a Torrey Pines cliff collapsed in 2008, Abbott told a TV news reporter that gravity sometimes works gradually. While there’s no doubt a scientific way to explain it, Abbott put it this way: “It’s like slow-falling dominoes. One fell, it takes a while before the next one goes.”
Abbott’s so-called edu-tainment model is still used within the geology department, and has been adopted by several other departments on campus, according to David Kimbrough, chairman of SDSU’s Department of Geological Sciences.
“There’s nothing wrong with entertaining while teaching,” Kimbrough says. He says Abbott deftly “puts things in clear, tractable terms, with accuracy. He takes a lot of concern and time making sure he’s on the beam with others in his field.”
SDSU geology professor and seismologist Dr. Kim Bak Olsen agrees that Abbott is a worthy spokesman. “He has to simplify it for the general public, so he obviously can’t use seismology jargon. But it’s a good compromise. He’s able to do it while retaining a lot of the facts,” Olsen says.
Abbott has an educated opinion on most topics. Ask him anything.
For instance, are we paranoid, or are there more earthquakes than normal?
“San Diegans have definitely been experiencing more earthquakes than any time in the last century,” Abbott says.
The bigger the earthquake, the bigger the aftershock, he says. The Easter quake, estimated at 7.2 magnitude, was followed by a 5.7. Then along came the 5.4, which was along a different fault line. And then there are all the other fault lines that are overdue for an earthquake, he says.
“We definitely know it’s going to happen, but we have zero idea when it’s going to happen.”
So why can’t earthquakes be predicted like the weather? Abbott says meteorologists have the benefit of satellite images to track weather systems as they move across the sky. Earthquakes, meanwhile, originate miles below the ground. The Northridge earthquake of 1994 began 11 miles below the surface; the recent Easter quake happened 7 miles down.
“We are such a failure at being able to predict earthquakes, that one, if someone does predict them, they’re a phony. And two, is that maybe earthquakes are not predictable. Maybe there’s no scientific reason why they couldn’t be random, chaotic events.”
Even if earthquakes could be predicted, there’s little you could do to prepare for the Big One on short notice. At best, Abbott says, “It would be a good time for that family picnic in the middle of a grassy park.”
As he’s often quoted as saying, “Earthquakes don’t kill people. Buildings kill people.”
Of course, not all havoc on Earth is triggered by Mother Nature. Man-made disasters, like BP’s blown-out well in the Gulf, are devastating to life on the planet. Abbott says he’s particularly distressed when he hears the three-month effort to stem the flow of oil into the ocean referred to as an “oil spill.”
“It’s like, is this written by the BP public relations department or what? It’s not a spill. It’s a blowout. It’s a runaway well,” he says.
“A spill is Exxon Valdez. You crash a ship and its contents spill. There’s a limit to it.”
Abbott gets riled up when he talks about the systemic failures that led to the disaster. He blames the oil companies and the governments that allowed the well to go unchecked. He worries for the people whose livelihoods will be disrupted by the disaster. But when he puts on his geologist hat, he concedes that the long-term impact to Earth will be less devastating than you might think.
“In long lengths of time, this is no problem at all. Basically, these are hydrocarbons. They are fossil fuels. They are things that will be consumed by microorganisms. It will be erased in time. That doesn’t mean you won’t have some species go extinct in the meantime.”
Species extinction is a normal part of life on Earth, Abbott says.
“But that’s no excuse for driving a species into extinction. I consider it an inexcusable crime. Not to push this metaphor too far, but it’s like saying every person is going to die. That doesn’t mean you can go out and shoot them because they were going to die anyway.
“Every species has to do as well as it can for as many years as it can.”
Abbott doesn’t like to tell his age, and he certainly doesn’t appreciate being called a “retired” SDSU professor. “It’s the word in the English language I hate more than any other,” he shudders.
“I don’t use the word ‘retired.’ I just say I quit. Retirement to me is people who play golf, go fishing, go to casinos, play bridge. I’ve never done any of that. One of these years I may, and then I will call myself retired.”
Beyond his frequent media appearances, Abbott stays busy working on the eighth edition of his best-selling textbook, Natural Disasters with publisher McGraw-Hill, and giving lectures on five-star cruise ships. Sometimes he’s lecturing to a banquet hall of 500 people while cruising along the Eastern Mediterranean, sometimes he’s leading expeditions through Antarctica in rubber rafts.
“There’s no better audience than people who want to be there,” Abbott says. “The whole point is to get out on the water, in and among a pod of whales, get onto the land, be among the penguins, climb an active volcano.”
This is the kind of work he couldn’t do as a tenured professor. As long as he’s still mentally and physically fit, he says, this is what he wants to do with his time.
“I want to be part of the action,” Abbott says. “Right now, work’s more fun than play.”
Please contact Jennifer McEntee at email@example.com.