The Beauty of “The Really Big One”

When applying to the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, I highlighted my interest in scientific writing and the ability to explain scientific terminology and theories in beautiful description.

A particular article that exemplifies this interest is “The Really Big One.” In it, Kathryn Schulz writes about a powerful earthquake that is overdue to occur in the Pacific Northwest for The New Yorker. Schulz seamlessly blends vivid, detailed descriptions with scientific explanations.

Schulz begins with the story of a seismologist, Chris Goldfinger, who was in Japan at an international meeting on seismology when the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami struck, causing death and destruction. She describes the ground as it “snapped and popped and rippled,” creating a beautiful image of a natural disaster. Events like deadly earthquakes are always interesting to read about and I was quickly hooked.

From there, Schulz introduces the concept of fault lines and tectonic plates, again combining scientific terminology and eloquent imagery. She explains tectonic plates as “slabs of mantle and crust that, in their epochs-long drift, rearrange the earth’s continents and oceans.”

Schulz does more than just describing tectonic plates, however. She also includes an activity to help the reader learn what exactly is happening between the North American and Juan de Fuca tectonic plates. By using your hands, you can explore how the plates are interacting and how an encounter between the two will cause a devastating earthquake.

Additionally, Schulz does a remarkable job of using doomsday language to describe what could be the consequences of the earthquake and the following tsunami. A quote I found particularly chilling remarked, “Four to six minutes after the dogs start barking, the shaking will subside. For another few minutes, the region, upended, will continue to fall apart on its own. Then the wave will arrive, and the real destruction will begin.” The line causes goosebumps and paints a vivid, terrifying picture of what the earthquake will bring.

The beauty and urgency of Schulz’s writing made me feel panicked and nervous, as if I was truly witnessing this hypothetical albeit seemingly inevitable destruction. I live in the Midwest, far from where this earthquake would hit, yet still found myself anxious for its arrival.

Throughout the article, Schulz peppered in surprising details among interviews with officials, historical lessons, and scientific explanations. By adding shock value, the story continued to be interesting and engaging.

Schulz’s article wasn’t necessarily challenging to read, which I believe was a good thing. She took a scary but fascinating subject and explained the nuances simply. I understood the transitions and connections she made throughout the story. Schulz was able to successfully make the science behind the future Cascadia earthquake easy to understand and intriguing to read about.

As stated above, I had read this article before and it was, and continues to be, an influential factor in my decision to pursue journalism as a major and as a career. With this in mind, I wouldn’t suggest any differences for this story. Schulz wrote an influential article that perfectly navigated how to make a scientific, environmental topic appealing and understandable to all readers.


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