Jian Lin / Geophysicist, Woods Hole

Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers

During a research cruise on the French ship L’AtalanteJian Lin, 51, is a Senior Scientist and the Henry Bryant Bigelow Chair for Excellence in Oceanography with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution located on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. A native of China, Jian’s interest in earth science was triggered while in high school by the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which had a magnitude 7.8. Just two months later, China’s political landscape changed dramatically as well, with the passing of the Chairman Mao Zedong era opening up new educational, economic and cultural opportunities for its citizens. Jian was among the first wave of students to be able to attend college in a decade, as well as among the first group allowed to study abroad a few years later. Jian was involved in a major discovery while on his first research cruise, sailing from Cadiz, Spain, to the Azores to map the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. He has since led and participated in more than a dozen research expeditions to the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian Oceans and the South China Sea, and is currently investigating the Japan quake.

Jian’s story is a profound reminder of how quickly the status quo can change — for better, or worse. I learned a great deal about the inner workings of this planet of ours in this conversation with Jian, not the least of which is its ever-present inter-connectivity. Jian and colleagues have conducted pioneering research into the notion that earthquakes “talk” to each other. I think you’ll find fascinating Jian’s “tour” of deep-sea hot spots, hydrothermal vents and abyssal terrain and appreciate the personal nature of his mission to help educate the public through a better understanding of how earthquakes and tsumanis work.

Never lose the child-like wonder. It’s just too important. It’s what drives us.
From “The Last Lecture (2007)” by Randy Pausch, 1960–2008


Meg: As a senior scientist in geology and geophysics at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, you study the Earth’s tectonic processes both on land and under the oceans. I understand that when you were growing up in China, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake near the city of Tangshan influenced your career choice. Can you describe the impact of that event for you?

Jian: Unlike many other geologists, my interest in Earth sciences was not sparked while hiking in rocky mountains nor when picking up pebbles on a beach – my passion started with earthquakes.

I was born and raised in China’s southern coastal city of Fuzhou, not far from the quake-prone island of Taiwan. When I was small, my father explained to me that the dangling light in our house went into a wild swing because of a major quake in Taiwan. The mid-1970s was an unusually apprehensive era when the whole nation of China felt as if quakes could occur anywhere at any time. I became a voluntary “earthquake watcher” in high school. I kept a diary of water level changes in an abandoned well in our school and the gentle tilting of the ground, phoning in readings to a local seismological center.

On July 28, 1976, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Tangshan, east of Beijing in northern China. The quake struck at 3:42 a.m., when most people were sleeping in their beds. It lasted only about 90 seconds, but about 90 percent of the houses and buildings in Tangshan collapsed. More than 242,000 people died, and 170,000 were severely injured. 7,000-plus families perished entirely. It was the deadliest quake in the 20th century.

Tangshan earthquake

Tangshan earthquake (Courtesy of the China News Agency)

The Tangshan quake occurred while I was an “earthquake watcher” in high school. Much of the bamboo harvest in my home province was sent north to Tangshan to construct shelters. Truckloads of large plastic bags were also sent north from my home city. So many people died, those plastic bags were needed to bury the dead.

The Tangshan earthquake had left an imprint on my generation that is as profound and indelible as September 11th on the current U.S. generation. It encouraged me to become a geophysicist and earthquake researcher — to seek to understand the fundamental physics of the Earth, to advance our capability of forecasting earthquakes, and to save lives.

Meg: Also while you were growing up, the political landscape changed dramatically. Could you talk a little bit about what that meant for you personally?

Jian: In September 1976, only two months after the Tangshan quake, the founding father of the modern China, Chairman Mao Zedong, died, causing a major shift in political landscape. This was followed by the arrest of the radical Gang of Four in October 1976, and the emergence of Mr. Deng Xiaoping as a pragmatic leader for China in 1977.

My life also changed dramatically. When I graduated from the high school in summer 1977, I prepared to be “re-educated,” to experience the life of a peasant and work in rice fields on a poor, remote farm, as all my older brothers and sister did. I did not even know how many years I would be on the farm.

Jian Lin in college in China

Jian Lin (left) as one of the first class of college students after 10-year closing of Chinese universities.

Then came the announcement: “Everyone can now take a national entrance exam” for colleges, which were closed for 10 years during the Cultural Revolution. The competition for college entrance was furious: 20 students competed for one spot for any kind of colleges. I was lucky. I was fresh out of high school, and I got into the best science university in China to study physics, geophysics, and earthquake science. We studied like mad. Think about 10 years, there’s no science, and then suddenly, you have the opportunity.

So in less than two years, I witnessed and experienced dramatic changes in China’s political landscape and in my own life. China changed its focus from ideological struggle to economic development. I went from a future farm labor to a student in a prestigious university. My Chinese experience made me realize that unthinkable could happen.

Just as I finished university, Deng Xiaoping said China should modernize, open the door to the outside, and send students to study abroad. Deng himself went on a youth work-study program in France when he was a teenager. Again, I was among the first group that the government said, “You can go now.”

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