EARLY ON IN The Great Quake, Kris Madsen starts her first day as a schoolteacher in Alaska, a place the inexperienced but enthusiastic explorer chose for its location near the top of the alphabet. It’s 1962, and Madsen, a Californian who has just finished college, wants to make a good impression. She has neatly organized her desk when a first-grader named Rocky walks in carrying a freshly caught salmon nearly as big as he is. “For you, teacher!” he says as he lays the fish across the desk.

Lovely moments like this abound in Henry Fountain’s book about one of the most powerful earthquakes ever measured: the Good Friday earthquake that struck Alaska in 1964. A science writer at The New York Times, Fountain explains how this devastating earthquake changed the way we understand the Earth’s crust and led to the general acceptance of the theory of plate tectonics. But it’s a story he tells as a humanist who acknowledges that science is just one thread in the vast tapestry of life. In Fountain’s telling, scientific progress is inseparable from individuals’ hopes, fears, and fates; it’s of a part with the sheer physical beauty of nature, subordinate to the insoluble mysteries of existence.

The easy-to-read, dramatic narrative introduces the reader to an extensive cast of characters without ever losing its way. There’s George Plafker, the son of Polish immigrants, whose years in the Hebrew National Orphan Home in Yonkers instilled in him the toughness and discipline he would later need as a geologist in the Alaskan wilderness. The reader meets nearly all the denizens of Chenega, the tiny, isolated village where Kris is teaching when the quake hits. Avis Kompkoff, for example: born to an alcoholic mother in Anchorage, she was adopted by a family in Chenega, and by 1964 she’s a 19-year-old married mother of two with a third on the way. She loves living there:

[N]ow, as an adult, from time to time she would stop what she was doing and gaze out past the cove to the lands beyond, including the peaks of the Chugach. What a lovely world God has created, she would find herself thinking. And we get to enjoy it in this beautiful place.

Chenega isn’t the only Alaskan locale the reader gets to know intimately. Valdez is populated by the kind of rugged individualists who would build a high school gym over a tidal ditch; when the fish are running, students can hear their tails splashing beneath the basketball court. Fountain’s descriptions of the state’s brooding landscape, too, are evocative: “But the cloudy, foggy days — common weather for Prince William Sound — served up their own kind of beauty, turning a cluster of small islands offshore into dark smudges, like daubs of dark gray in a wet-on-wet watercolor.”

After these introductions, Fountain describes the earthquake’s arrival in a consistently terrifying passage during which page after page of impossible things happen — stairways dance, an entire waterfront collapses, the facade of a JCPenney slices a woman in half. Fountain emphasizes the realness of these skin-crawling images by telling the story through the eyes of survivors (“it scared the curl right out of my hair,” one woman tells him). Bob Atwood, an Anchorage newspaperman practicing his trumpet when the quake hits, leaves his house just before it compresses “as if it were a giant squeezebox”:

Getting out when he had had saved his life. But Atwood didn’t have much time to think about that, or about the loss of his worldly possessions. Around him, trees were falling over. Worse, the ground itself was starting to break into strange, angular blocks, some rotating up and others down […] Suddenly a crevasse opened beneath his feet, and he was falling […] He saw that he was in a deep V-shaped chasm, and it was starting to fill up with other objects — tree stumps, fence posts and boulder-sized chunks of frozen soil. His right arm seemed to be buried in the sand, and he realized that his right hand was still holding his trumpet.

After the quake come the tsunamis — again, the stuff of nightmares, rendered by Fountain in terrifying detail and with a real sense of tragedy. The reader has gotten to know the people being swept out to sea, never to be recovered, including a bridegroom-to-be who had made the fateful decision to go to the Valdez dock that afternoon to earn a little extra money before embarking on married life. Among its other powerful charms, the book forces the reader to think about the nature of crisis, how it can happen at any time, to anyone.

Some of the most moving passages involve the aftermath of the devastation in Chenega, where families were physically torn apart by the waves. One little boy playing at the beach makes it to safety, against all odds:

For Timmy Selanoff, the village was too far away, and the water was coming too fast. He had to get away from it, and the only way was up — nearly straight up, since where he was on the beach a steep hill came almost straight down to the water. Timmy started up. He remembered grabbing on to a twig or a root at some point. Other than that, he recalled later, he had no memory of what happened. He credited divine intervention — as the second wave approached, a voice had told him not to be afraid.

Timmy is not the only survivor who reported hearing a voice. One of the strengths of Fountain’s writing is that in a book about science he gives the unfathomable plenty of room, and treats personal, even mystical, experiences with just as much respect as he does the data gleaned from measuring the ocean’s floor (something, the reader learns, that was accomplished with a device called a fathometer).

Throughout, Fountain includes colorful history — the impossibly hard lives of Alaskan gold miners, the evolution of scientific thinking about how the Earth’s crust works — and amazing factoids such as this one, which details a Chinese device from the second century that was one of the earliest known seismometers:

It consisted of a large bronze jar with dragon heads arrayed around it like the points of a compass, a bronze toad beneath each dragon and most likely some kind of pendulum inside. Each dragon held a ball in its mouth. Shaking from a certain direction would cause the ball from one dragon to drop into the mouth of the accompanying toad.

Ultimately, the scientists about whom Fountain writes want to understand what the Great Quake says about the Earth’s mechanics. Fountain wants to know how things work, too — how the Earth is like a disk of pizza dough that gets thinner where it’s pulled — but his interests are more wide-ranging and resolutely anchored in the human. In one telling anecdote, Fountain recounts how George Plafker, the geologist whose on-the-ground observations after the earthquake led to our contemporary understanding of plate tectonics, leaves a conference in Seattle and flies north as soon as the quake hits. But he’s only packed for a two-day trip, so before joining him in Alaska a colleague stops by Plafker’s house in California to pick up fresh clothes from his wife.

It is this eye for the humanizing detail that makes Fountain’s book such a pleasure to read, and anecdotes such as this serve as a welcome reminder that as lofty a concept as knowledge is, it comes to life in the smallest moments of human discovery and experience. After all, great scientific progress may rely on data and measurements, but it can’t be separated from history, personality, coincidence, catastrophe, and — just maybe — a change of clothes.

¤

Berlin-based journalist Sally McGrane writes about Western Europe, Russia, and Ukraine for The New York Timesnewyorker.com, and others. Her spy novel Moscow at Midnight will be published in May.