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Turning Seismic Activity
Into Computer Screen Poetics

by Robert Sanders, Public Affairs
posted May 13, 1998

We who tend to forget we live in earthquake country now have an effective reminder at our fingertips: a Web site called “Memento Mori” that displays a slow-moving trace of seismic activity on the state’s most dangerous rift, the Hayward Fault.

The site was created by Ken Goldberg, associate professor of industrial engineering and operations research, and Wojciech Matusik, a computer science student. The streaming earthquake data, displayed with a Java applet that resembles the rhythmic lifeline of a heart monitor, offers a “web interface to the Earth.”

Memento Mori displays the fault’s constant low-level activity – “microseismic noise from breaking waves on distant beaches or the vibrations generated by moving weather fronts,” said Barbara Romanowicz, director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, which collaborated on the project.

“This is the first time seismic data has been displayed in such a poetic fashion,” said Romanowicz, a professor of geology and geophysics at Berkeley.

Each white trace moves from left to right across the computer screen, fading slowly into a black background until it is overwritten by a new trace.

“We wanted to strip down the interface to the bare bones, so that viewers would stop and think about what this data means,” said Goldberg.

“Memento Mori” – Latin for “reminder of death” – is an art historical motif from the Middle Ages using symbols of death and burial to serve as a warning against vanity.

“In the context of today’s information deluge, Memento Mori can also be a reminder to slow down and smell the roses,” said Goldberg.

Memento Mori was selected to be part of an Internet-based art exhibition, Beyond Interface, launched recently on the World Wide Web.

“We have all seen a seismograph before – many times,” writes Steve Dietz, director of New Media Initiatives at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and a member of the jury for the exhibit. “And yet, it is hard not to watch the phospherent, fading trace climb and fall across the interface without pangs of one’s own mortality.”

The seismic data are recorded at the Byerly Vault in Strawberry Canyon several hundred yards east of the Hayward Fault, which runs directly under the campus. The fault also undercuts a metropolitan area of about three million people, including the cities of Oakland and Berkeley. A 1990 analysis estimated a one-in-four chance of a quake with a magnitude of 7 or greater on the Hayward Fault.

Captured by a Streckeisen STS-1 seismometer that measures vertical ground velocity, Memento Mori data are collected at the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory and relayed to a computer in Goldberg’s Alpha Lab. Seismologist Lind Gee and Doug Neuhauser, who manages computer resources at the laboratory, worked with Goldberg and Matusik to route the data between computers.

Since moving to Berkeley in 1995, Goldberg has created several Web art projects, including the ShadowServer .

Goldberg’s interest in telerobotics is partly practical – as an engineer he develops geometric algorithms for the control of industrial robots – and partly artistic. Goldberg helped to establish Berkeley’s Art, Technology and Culture Symposium – a campuswide series of lectures and discussions dealing with the intersection of art and technology.

“I’m interested in how we know what is real, a question that has been with us since Galileo first saw the moons of Jupiter through a telescope. What are we actually seeing?”

As for Memento Mori, Goldberg said he remembers being surprised when he first moved to California and found that the topic of earthquakes rarely comes up.

“We develop a collective amnesia on this subject,” he said.

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