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Staff writer

In a country with frequent and sometimes devastating earthquakes, it is natural for lay people to want to know when and where the next one is going to hit.

Unfortunately, that desire is probably crying for the moon, according to Robert Geller, an associate professor of geophysics at the University of Tokyo.

“When people talk about earthquake prediction, the popular image they have is that some government agency will issue a warning within the next two or three days that a large earthquake will occur in a particular region, and that you should immediately evacuate the city or stop business,” he said in a recent interview at his office. “It would be nice if it were possible, but the outlook for such accurate and reliable prediction is bleak.”

The majority of seismologists around the world have reached the consensus that short-term earthquake prediction is inherently impossible. So, Geller’s claim is perhaps no surprise for those living in countries where many quake prediction research programs have lost support due to findings that earthquakes are more random than deterministic.

But here in Japan, the public, mass media and government authorities still overestimate the ability of scientists to provide warning of an imminent damaging temblor, said Geller, 46, an expert on seismic wave propagation.

A native of New York, Geller has held his current university post since 1984, when he became one of the first foreign teachers hired on a permanent basis rather than as a guest.

Geller, an outspoken opponent of earthquake prediction, has long criticized the solid faith of a group of seismologists and government officials in the possibility of predicting earthquakes. The earthquake research program, which includes satellite-based monitoring of the earth’s crust in the Tokai region, will cost the government nearly 19 billion yen in fiscal 1998 alone.

Seismologists have long predicted a powerful earthquake will hit the Tokai region, including Shizuoka, and that a huge tremor in the region would result in serious damage to the Tokyo metropolitan area.

“The myth of the Tokai earthquake was established in the 1970s on shaky grounds, and ever since then, optimistic views on predicting quakes have swept the country without solid scientific grounds,” Geller said, adding that because so much attention has been paid to the Tokai region, people in other places have come to misunderstand that they are safe.

His arguments mostly have been ignored by Japanese seismologists. Since he first criticized the earthquake prediction project due to “his conscience as a scientist” in his article in the scientific journal Nature in 1991, almost no Japanese scientists have published counterarguments in academic papers.

But the attitudes of experts changed, partly due to Geller’s efforts and partly because of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which hit Hyogo and neighboring prefectures — an area largely overlooked by seismologists.

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