Frank Evison was a pioneer in the field of earthquake prediction, yet when he was born in 1922, we were still 40 years away from an understanding of plate tectonics.
During his lifetime, our understanding of earthquakes improved dramatically, and international optimism about their prediction peaked in the 1970s before eventually waning in the 1990s. Despite this, Frank’s commitment never faltered. He believed passionately that, as a scientist, he had a duty to society, and his dedication to producing a reliable method of earthquake forecasting continued until his death in 2005.
Frank was born in Christchurch, and he lived there with his parents and siblings until he was 15. His mother was a trained teacher, and before Frank started school at 6, she taught him to read, write and do basic maths. Frank continued to do well academically once at school and was often top of his class.
In 1937, Frank’s family moved to Wellington, and he started at Wellington College. Frank stayed in Wellington for his university studies and graduated from Victoria University of Wellington with a BSc in physics in 1944 and a MA with Honours in mathematics in 1946. Although his studies focused on science, Frank was also very interested in economics, English and history and completed papers in these subjects.
After the war, during which Frank served on several coastal radar stations, he worked his passage to the UK as a donkeyman on a ship. It was in London that Frank met his wife Joan and started to specialise in geophysics, gaining his PhD from the University of London.
On his return to New Zealand, Frank spent a number of years as a government scientist with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). During this time, Frank made one of his most well known discoveries – coal-seam guided S waves, eventually renamed ‘Evison waves’.
Frank possessed a strong belief that scientists have a duty to society and that reliable earthquake prediction would help minimise loss of life and suffering.Frank Foster Evison
In 1967, Frank began an academic career and was appointed inaugural Professor of Geophysics at Victoria University. Shortly after this, Frank began his research into earthquake forecasting. Many aspects of his upbringing, personality and academic background were evident in the way he tackled his research:
Respect for data: Frank did not belong to the computer generation, and although he did use computers when necessary, he had learned to carry out data analysis by hand and was able to find precursory swarms by examining printed earthquake catalogues. As a result, he believed strongly in an empirical approach to test earthquake prediction models and was pioneering in his rigorous testing of models.
A questioning nature: Frank was very articulate and loved to argue and debate. He pushed others to defend their ideas and question the prevailing view of science. Frank argued passionately for his ideas but was also willing to admit when he was wrong.
Belief in collaboration: Frank travelled extensively as part of his research and was very well known overseas. He believed strongly in true international collaboration and also served on a number of international committees. His role in establishing the Institute of Geophysics at Victoria University is also evidence of his belief in the importance of collaborative research.
Towards the end of his life, Frank was frustrated that he had not made more progress towards his goal. However, true to his nature, Frank remained focused on the future and remained committed to the idea that, at some stage, accurate earthquake prediction would be possible. Frank’s legacy continues in the scholarship that was established in his honour in 2006 and the international symposium in 2008 that brought together leading scientists in earthquake forecasting.
The timeline below lets you see aspects of Frank's life and work, and how his findings changed scientific thinking. A full timeline transcript is here.