Lucy Jones, the best-known seismologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, has been holding the hands of Southern Californians (and science-challenged reporters) through earthquakes for a long time now. "'I’m everybody’s mother," she says in a new Smithsonian piece by Amy Wallace. “'Women are more reassuring after an event,' she says, recalling how moved people were years back when she conducted post-quake TV interviews holding Niels, her 1-year-old son, in her arms (he’s 21 now)." Some personal insight into Jones, who is 57:
A fourth-generation Southern Californian, Jones grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, when girls were not typically encouraged to excel in math and science. But her father, an aerospace engineer at TRW, who worked on the first lunar module descent engine, taught his daughter to calculate prime numbers when she was 8 years old. Jones got a perfect score on a high-school science aptitude test. A guidance counselor accused her of cheating. “Girls don’t get those kind of scores,” the counselor said.
Despite a math teacher’s suggestion that she attend Harvard University “because they had a better class of men to marry,” she chose Brown, where she studied physics and Chinese and did not take a geology class until her senior year. She was transfixed, devouring the 900-page textbook in a week. Graduating with a B.A. in Chinese language and literature (she studied earthquake references in ancient Chinese texts), Jones went to MIT to get a doctorate in geophysics—one of just two women at the school pursuing an advanced degree in that subject. (And she found time to master the viola de gamba, a Baroque, cello-like instrument that she still plays today.) A few years after the 1975 Haicheng earthquake in Liaoning, China, an adviser said, “Why don’t you start studying foreshocks, and then if China ever opens up, we’ll be in a position to send you to go study there.” In February 1979, while still in grad school, Jones became one of the first U.S. scientists to enter China after Westerners were allowed in. She was 24.
Jones is married to Caltech seismologist Egill Hauksson.
Photo: David Zentz, Smithsonian