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It takes a lot to impress the brainpower assembled at a place like Caltech, but Hiroo Kanamori regularly had the denizens of the Seismological Laboratory feeling inspired—and maybe just a little bit envious.
“Perhaps the most enduring observation I have about Hiroo is that he can make complex problems look easy. He likes to assemble lots of information and then rearrange it so that it makes sense. He is especially talented at asking the most perceptive questions that lead to a deeper understanding,” said Thomas Heaton , director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Laboratory at Caltech.
“We are often amazed at how he can attack so many problems so efficiently and so effectively. This gives those around him the hope that they, too, will be able to see the true structure of complex problems. Sometimes, this can also be discouraging,” Heaton added. “I remember many times that Hiroo would complain at coffee break, ‘It took me all weekend to write this paper, I don’t know why I am so slow.’ All the rest of us could do was to groan in response.”
As a researcher, Caltech Professor Emeritus Hiroo Kanamori has had an unquestionable impact on the science of seismology. His groundbreaking research on the physics of massive earthquakes, the physics of the long-term crustal processes behind seismic events, and real-time earthquake hazard monitoring mark him as one of the world’s leading geophysicists. To the public, he may be best known with Caltech researcher Thomas C. Hanks (now a seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey) as the developer of the moment magnitude scale for measuring the relative strength of earthquakes, expanding the Richter magnitude scale in the 1970s.
But it is his role as a mentor and guide in the professional development of hundreds of students and colleagues that is celebrated with the Seismological Society of America’s Kanamori Fund. The fund is dedicated to the professional development of students, seismologists and earthquake engineers, supporting everything from career development seminars at the SSA Annual Meeting to travel grants for national and international conferences.
Kanamori said that opportunities such as these, particularly the chance to travel and work with leading scientists, were important in his own professional development. At the University of Japan, where he received his Ph.D. in 1964, he worked with well-known Japanese scientists Chuji Tsuboi on engineering projects and Hitoshi Takeuchi on seismological research, along with American geophysicist Charles Hewitt Dix when Dix visited the University of Tokyo.
It was Dix who encouraged Kanamori to come to the U.S. for the first time, where Kanamori recalled the “really wonderful” atmosphere created by researchers such as former Caltech Seismological Laboratory directors Frank Press and Don Anderson when Kanamori spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech in 1965.
“Frank has already left when I came to Caltech, but his philosophy of treating graduate students as professional colleagues rather than just students had been inherited by Don. This was the kind of leadership that didn’t force others to work on specific projects, but to build an exciting and stimulating research environment while the leader himself is working on research, rather than just management,” Kanamori said.
Kanamori carried on this tradition when he came to Caltech to stay in 1972 and as director of the Seismological Laboratory from 1990 to 1998. Seth Stein, a Kanamori student at Caltech in the 1970s, is one of the many researchers who were profoundly influenced by the distinguished geophysicist, right from the start.
“When I got to Caltech, it was the height of the earthquake prediction phase, when people were telling us we would be able to predict earthquakes within five years, and such,” recalled Stein, the Deering Professor of Geological Sciences at Northwestern University. “And Hiroo didn’t believe it, and he was very honest about it. I’m sure this story has gone around a few times, but I remember that Hiroo said it’s really hard to predict earthquakes—especially before they happen.”
It’s a funny line, of course, but Stein thinks that the joke is a revealing one, underscoring the kind of scientist Kanamori is. “I learned that what he had was a deep and healthy skepticism that world class scientists have,” he said. “I thought he was really good at not being influenced by conventional wisdom, and telling us not to be as well. He is a very independent thinker, and that is something that the best of his students got from him.”
Some of that independent thought began with Kanamori’s childhood in Japan at the end of World War II, when he taught himself to build motors and transformers from the war’s rubble. The complex programming and algorithms he uses in his work now have come a long way since then, but he hopes that the SSA fund in his honor will help students with similarly ambitious career plans. “Because of the tight funding situation these days, young scientists tend to be locked in ongoing projects,” he explained. “Of course, these ongoing projects can be important, but students do not seem to have time and opportunity to explore interesting and exciting projects as they come along somewhat unexpectedly.”
For some of Kanamori’s students, he was the unexpected element that helped to launch their careers. “I think my short anecdote about Hiroo is pretty simple,” said UC Santa Cruz seismologist Emily Brodsky, when asked about Kanamori’s influence on her. “I arrived as a graduate student at Caltech swearing that I would do anything geophysical other than seismology. And then I met Hiroo. He was just so much fun to work with that I had to work on earthquakes. So it is entirely his fault that I am a seismologist.”
You can help us have a career-changing impact on a seismologist with your donation this fall. Our ability to advance seismology depends on your support of the Kanamori and other SSA funds.