Seismic geology became his specialty. "Maybe I was influenced by the '49 earthquake, which left a crack through Eliot Hall," Allen says with a smile.
His doctoral thesis was a detailed study of a section of the San Andreas fault north of Palm Springs. Since then, Allen has studied most of the world's similar faults, from the Philippines and Chile to Turkey and Tibet. "In Tibet, you can see these faults far better," he says. "In California you've got all those houses in the way, and in Oregon you've got all those trees. In Tibet there are only a few yaks."
Allen's understanding of geologic faults and stresses is where he's made his biggest mark-and for which in 1995 he received the Seismological Society of America's medal, its highest honor. He's also labored to get geologists, seismologists, and engineers to talk to each other about solving earthquake hazards. "It used to be that seismologists were the ones we looked to when we wanted to know about the danger of earthquakes," Allen explains. "But because most big faults express themselves on the earth's surface, geologists actually have more to say about how often previous earthquakes occurred and how big they were."
Allen's work has taken him around the globe many times consulting on earthquake dangers in the placement of dams and nuclear facilities. He was one of the first U.S. scientists to visit China and, upon return visits, served as a consultant on the Three Gorges Dam. He's also been an adviser on the Tarbela Dam in Pakistan (the world's largest embankment dam), Itaipu Dam in Brazil and Paraguay, and Matahina Dam in New Zealand.
Allen has served as president of the Geological Society of America and the Seismological Society of America, and was the first person to receive the G.K. Gilbert Award in Seismic Geology from the Carnegie Institution. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and recently contributed to the NAS Research fund to aid Reed students and teachers working on research together.
Today Allen continues to consult around the globe. "If someone is willing to pay my ticket to Tibet," he says, "it's pretty hard to turn down."
Maya Muir is a Portland freelancer. This is her first article for Reed.