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In Quake Role, She's Not Rattled : Caltech Seismologist in Demand to Answer Questions

October 11, 1987|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

With lights, cameras and microphones all aimed at her face, the media's fleeting new star pulled off another perfect performance, answering everything everyone wanted to know about earthquakes.

This time, Kate Hutton, spokeswoman for Caltech's seismology laboratory, was speaking for television audiences in Japan.

Hutton's face and words became familiar to American readers and television viewers when she explained the Southland's Oct.1 earthquake, and again when she answered more questions about the strong aftershock last Sunday.

Several days later, Hutton was still so much in demand that a Korean television crew crowded into the seismology lab to follow the Japanese interview, and a unit for a Spanish-language TV channel stood at the door.

Hutton's words would be translated, just as they had been for Swedish, French and other foreign newscasts the previous week.

Between takes, Hutton stopped to sip instant coffee from a mug decorated with earth fissures, leaned against a wall covered with bizarre earthquake humor and braced for the next set of blinding lights.

Yes, she said, this was a strange way for a scientist to spend her time. But there was a simple explanation:

"I'm the only one who has this written into her job description," she said.

Direct and unpretentious, with a background in physics and a doctorate in astronomy, Hutton, 37, doesn't meet most people's expectations of a media darling. Her wardrobe, regardless of the occasion, is jeans, T-shirt and athletic shoes. She wears no makeup, and her hair curls however it chooses. "This is me," she explained. "I don't have the energy to spare to project an image that isn't me."

She speaks softly but with confidence, showing no signs of nervousness over the fact that what she says is of vital importance to thousands of people.

Her supervisor, Clarence Allen, a Caltech professor of geology and geophysics, calls Hutton "very successful and highly valued" for her ability to convey understandable information about a complex subject.

"Kate has the scientific responsibility to say things that are correct, and that's not always easy, even when you're explaining to technical people," Allen said. "Public relations and science don't always mix well, and she does a remarkably good job. Especially when you know that her primary responsibility is to operate our whole earthquake measuring program, and she is also a competent scientist who does research."

Allen lauded both Hutton's patience in answering the same questions day after day and her devotion to duty, which entails getting up in the middle of the night to check instruments when her pager responds to an electronic alarm.

Hutton has been at Caltech for 10 years, eight of them as senior seismologist. While the Oct. 1 quake was the biggest she had personally experienced in California, it was just one of dozens all over the world that register on Caltech instruments every year and that she analyzes and interprets for the media.

A team of earthquake experts, including Allen, several other Caltech scientists and engineers and the staff at the U. S. Geological Survey offices across the street from the seismology lab, responds to all major quakes recorded by Caltech's instruments.

Their work was made harder Oct. 1 when the quake jolted the instruments and threw their readings off. After getting measurements from other seismic centers, including UC Berkeley and the University of Colorado, the team held a press conference less than two hours after the 7:42 a.m. quake.

"We know exactly what to do," Hutton said. "In this case, everyone showed up because it was felt. I'm impressed with how well it all worked."

Since then, however, the days have been longer and harder for Hutton, whose regular work--analyzing computer information--has been piling up while she faces the cameras and explains what happened, over and over.

She never expected to be in the spotlight. "It just turned out this way," she said.

The daughter of an Episcopal minister who liked to move around, Hutton said her family lived in several states while she was growing up and spent six years in Taiwan. She enjoyed the variety and thinks that living in Taiwan may have helped her deal with the many Asians who have interviewed her.

"I think as a kid I changed interests every two years, but it was always some form of science," she said.

A graduate of Pennsylvania State University, Hutton earned her master's degree and doctorate in astronomy at the University of Maryland. With jobs in astronomy in short supply, she became a seismologist at Caltech because it sounded interesting. Besides, she said, "astronomy and seismology are not much different. The earth is a planet. And most of the work is done with computers."

She lives in a Pasadena apartment about a mile from Caltech--"just me and my cat"--savoring science fiction and poetry and attending a Caltech poetry workshop when time permits.

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