"You're talking about things that can occur 300 years apart," said Dr. Frank Vernon, a research geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Vernon said that as he watched the tsunami come ashore, he was unable to divorce the scientist in him from the humanist. "You want to reach out and help, and you can't do anything — except maybe better prepare for the next round," he said.
Currently, scientists are able to predict landfall — but only after a tsunami has begun offshore, and typically by using a relatively rudimentary system of buoys that measure fluctuations in wave levels. They know far less about how tsunamis are created, or why some offshore earthquakes create them and some don't, or how the waves will react once they reach land.
No tsunami has ever been documented to this degree. Harry Yeh, a professor of engineering at Oregon State University, was watching a cooking show with his wife on Japanese-language television when the live news reports broke into the broadcast. His heart broke for his native Japan, he said — but he instantly recognized that within the small, tight-knit community of scientists who study tsunamis, "this was extremely intriguing and amazing."
Still, the scope of the disaster is a reminder of how much work lies ahead. "It's going to be hundreds of years before we get enough of a record," Vernon said. Indeed, the limits of science were at least as evident as the potential advances.
"The hubris of humanity makes us forget how powerful nature can be," said Bill Patzert, a climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. He said this was "not an act of God" — but then he paused and added: "Well, I hope not. I could be wrong."
Theologians were left with ambiguities of their own.
Martin, the Jesuit priest, said that nonbelievers may well have an easier time digesting the disturbing images from Japan than believers, because "the nonbeliever does not have to grapple with: How does a good God let this happen?
"Most people can make sense of what theologians call 'moral evil' — evil that comes from human decisions," he said. "But natural disasters and catastrophic illnesses really test the believers' faith. There is no satisfactory answer for why there is such suffering in the world on a natural level."
Some faiths — Christianity in particular — are imbued with the notion that God is not impersonal and accompanies humans in their suffering, Martin said.
"But no explanation can fully satisfy that question of why we suffer," he said. "And anyone who says they have the answer is either a fool or a liar."
Photos: Scenes from the earthquake