Friday 15 March 2013

Earthquakes and Dinosaurs - A Tale of Two Kates

The world of geology and palaeontology is still very much a man’s world. Here are a couple of lesbian scientists who have come in from the field trip and out of the laboratory to become respected by many non-scientists as well.

Even though the British Geological Survey HQ is only a couple of miles from where I live we don’t get to see many geologists on tv, let alone seismologists (earthquake scientists). Of course, places like California have a lot more earthquakes than Nottingham. Since the 1980s one female seismologist has appeared regularly on American tv to explain earthquakes, and has become so well-recognised in Southern California that people just call her the “Earthquake Lady” – Dr. Kate Hutton.
Kate Hutton was turned on to science by the NASA space missions and went on to study astronomy at university, earning her PhD in 1976. So how does a scientist trained to look far out into space come to be looking beneath the earth’s surface? As a youngster Kate was interested in all the natural sciences and had been interested in earthquakes ever since she experienced her first one. When it came to choosing a subject to major in at school astronomy seemed to have the better prospect of a career than geology. The space race was at its height and people were talking seriously about having moon colonies by the end of the 20th century. Astronomy certainly had more visible scientific presence in America than geology at the time.

At university Kate was part of a large research team which included both astronomers and earth scientists. In a cross-application of data, measurements of radio emissions from quasars helped to provide some of the early direct measurements of continental plate movements in the 1970s. It was this research which led Kate to the geological side of the team.
After university Kate joined the California Institute of Technology, where she has remained. Most of her work involves data and statistical analysis of previous earthquakes, improving the chance of accurately estimating the risk of earthquake severity and damage. Kate was put before the cameras in the 1908s to discuss recent earthquakes and she quickly became a popular “expert” to call upon by the media. Perhaps she didn’t realise what a good communicator she was. Her frequent appearances on tv led her to being called the “Earthquake Lady”.  Her ability to communicate also extended to giving tours of the seismology lab. In 1984 she gave a tour for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Scientists group and ended up dating the tour group’s leader. It was then that she decided to come out at work.
Whereas Kate Hutton has a secondary career as a tv “expert”, another Kate (more properly Caitlín) has carved a highly successful second career as a fantasy novelist – Caitlín R. Kiernan.

Even though fiction writing is currently Caitlín’s main career it wasn’t her first. She has written several papers on palaeontology and dinosaurs. Irish-born Caitlín moved to the US when she was a child with her mother after her father died, and grew up in Alabama. It was while doing volunteer work at the Red Mountain Museum that she developed her interest in geology. After studying both geology and palaeontology at university she got jobs in museums and schools. It was in 1992 that she began writing fantasy fiction.

Caitlín’s fiction has been praised by fans and literary critics of iconic fantasy writers like H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe though she hates being pigeon-holed into the “horror” category (she prefers “dark fantasy” or “goth-noir”). Caitlín won the International Horror Guild Award with her first published novel, “Silk”, in 1998. She has subsequently won it another 4 times and nominated a further 5 times.
As well as fiction Caitlín has been involved in comic books, working with Neil Gaiman on a spin-off of his successful “The Sandman” series. Through Gaiman she wrote the novelisation for the 2007 film “Beowulf” (Kate Hutton also has movie credentials – she was consultant for the 1990 film “Tremors”).
Even though her work prevented Caitlín from pursuing another career in a local goth-folk band, it didn’t stop her from continuing her palaeontological work, still publishing scientific papers up to 2005. I suppose her knowledge of another world, albeit our own prehistoric world, gives Caitlín an extra element which she can tap in to when creating fantasy worlds in her fiction. Juggling the two careers was a bit tiring at times and it was usually her palaeontological work which got left undone when she was overstretching herself.

With four nominations in various international fantasy writing awards last year and another novel, “Blood Oranges”, coming out this year it seems Caitlín will be at the top of the fiction lists for a while longer. And the funny thing is she hates writing!


  1. YO Tony,

    "Kate was put before the cameras in the 1908s to discuss recent earthquakes and she quickly became a popular “expert” to call upon by the media".

    Let me do the math!

    1908 from 2013, that would make Kate over 105.