I was standing in my office, trying to deconstruct some spacecraft sensor processing algorithms on my whiteboard. I had pages of code printouts in one hand and a marker in the other. As I turned back to my computer to consult some of the documents I had up on screen, I heard a rumble from overhead, as if someone had wheeled a heavy cart along the ceiling over my office. Simultaneously, the wall creaked – and the floor shifted under my feet.
In the cube grid outside my office, everybody popped up and looked around. We walked towards the hallway, as if it was a fire drill or something, before halfway through the evacuation process we kind of milled around and ascertained that, yes, everyone else felt that, too. Our next collective move was to the internet (the USGS maintains pretty spiffy live monitors on their web site). I’m sure the entire population of California was laughing at us, but the East Coast doesn’t get earthquakes.
I’d never felt an earthquake before, and this was definitely unmistakable. The psychological effects lingered a bit longer: every now and then for the next ten minutes, I felt like I couldn’t quite trust my inner ears.
I stayed at work late; when I left the parking lot was mostly empty. As I looked out over the expanse of flat asphalt, I thought that there’s nothing to remind us that the physical processes that drove our planet to the shape and form and state it is in now are still active than when the ground moves under our feet. I walked to my car, thinking about how a planet is a dynamic system and how much I take it for granted that the ground is going to stay still so I can drive home. And I wondered what it would be like if that little quake happened again. It was one of those moments when I couldn’t escape feeling how much bigger the world is than I am. It gave me pause for a minute; it was a small moment when I held a larger perspective of the world.
Of course: one of the truly wonderful things about the way this universe works is that, small as we are, human beings can learn to understand it. But even though I know about earthquakes, and know the mechanisms that cause and sustain them, feeling even a little one is a wholly different experience.