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He wants to better predict earthquakes

When MIT geophysics professor Nafi Toksoz embarked on his career, no one had yet articulated the theory of plate tectonics. Now 73 and a legend in his field, Toksoz still teaches, ponders the earth's evolution, and tries to better answer the great question that keeps seismologists up at night: How do you predict an earthquake?

"Predicting earthquakes is becoming more crucial," Toksoz said in an interview. "You can't tell people not to build cities in earthquake-prone areas. As population densities increase, so do the dangers."

In the 1970s, seismologists thought they were getting close to a solution, he said. "But for every one we predicted, we missed 10. It was back to the drawing board."

Fifteen years ago, the development of GPS technology radically pushed the field forward. Instead of measuring plate movements by centimeters over a period of decades, seismologists could measure movement by millimeters, over a single year. Toksoz said this newfound precision will help scientists sharpen earthquake predictions and save lives. "By combining seismology with GPS positioning, we can produce a fair understanding of how the Earth's crust is moving and where the stress is building up," he said.

Toksoz's current research is focused on the seismic activity in the Middle East -- the tectonically unstable zone between his native Turkey and the Arab Peninsula -- and in Central Asia through China to the Pacific.

For Toksoz, earthquakes were a happy accident. He came to the United States in 1954 on a scholarship to study at the Colorado School of Mines. The oldest of eight children, Toksoz had ambitions to be a civil engineer. But the scholarship he could get was in geophysics, so he made the best of the situation.

It was at graduate school at the California Institute of Technology that he began focusing on earthquakes, and, after the space program launched, on moonquakes. Toksoz spent 10 years working on the seismological data from the Apollo program, helping jumpstart the new field of comparative planetology.

"Nafi is very good at selecting important problems, bringing together the appropriate analytic tools, and going off into new directions," said Sean Solomon, director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and a former student of Toksoz's. Indeed, Toksoz's biggest achievement is arguably his training of an enormous cadre of graduate students over 40 years. "He's educated a disproportionate segment of the geophysics community," said Solomon. "It's peppered with scientific leaders who cut their teeth under his guidance."

Many of these leaders come from MIT's Earth Resources Laboratory, which Toksoz founded partly in response to the 1970s energy crisis. "I realized that anything we did in space would be beyond my professional lifetime. We needed to meet the needs of the Earth," he said. To this end, the lab has applied seismological technology to hunting down reserves of fossil fuels in the planet's crust. "We've been very successful," said Toksoz. "Just like people use ultrasound, we image the subsurface."

Fossil fuels, of course, create their own problems, and the lab's latest challenge has been researching ways to slow global warming by capturing carbon dioxide emissions and sequestering them in the planet's subsurface. "Everyone admits that for the next 50 years, we'll be dependent on fossil fuels, so the question is how can we minimize their impact?" Toksoz said.

Earthquakes remain his primary research focus, though. "Where will they happen? When? How big will they be?" These are the questions upon which millions of lives depend. He's hopeful: "It might be 10 or 20 years before we can predict them. But we'll get there."


Hometown: Salem, N.H.

Family: Wife, Charlotte Johnson, a high school Latin and classics teacher. Two step-daughters, Pamela, 33, and Courtney, 31.

Hobbies: Gardening. Also, "tasting wines that are affordable to a faculty member at MIT."

Ambition: To reduce the effect of earthquakes. "The number of people killed by earthquakes hasn't decreased. It's sad. You go to an earthquake area, and the devastation is so complete."