California's "Earthquake Lady" set to retire from rock star life

LOS ANGELES --For almost 30 years, Lucy Jones has been a rock star of another kind -- a U.S. Geological Survey seismologist famous as California's "Earthquake Lady."

Lucy Jones CBS News

"My male colleagues could do the exact same things that I did, and they don't get remembered," Jones said. "And I'm being stalked in the grocery store!"

Jones figures maybe she gets the attention because people find her motherly. "I think that's a factor. You feel better because mommy tells you it's OK," she concluded.

That image was established in 1992 after a major quake in the southern California desert. She had no babysitter and her husband, also a seismologist, had to deal with a computer failure.

"He brought the kids in, handed me the baby in the middle of the interview because he was dealing with a crisis. I became sort of this symbol of working motherhood."

Lucy Jones gives a press conference while holding her son after a 1992 earthquake in Los Angeles CBS News

Growing up, Jones loved science and math. But in the 1960's that wasn't easy for a girl.

"I still had a guidance counselor tell me, 'You have to stop showing you're so good in math, the boys aren't going to like you.'"

She didn't stop, and went on to earn a Ph.D in geophysics from MIT. She learned that when earthquakes left people on edge, she could help.

"When the scientists come in and give it a name and give it a number and give it a fault, we're putting it back in the box and saying somebody understands it."

"San Andreas": What's real and what's not

Over the years, she went from paper seismographs to computer-generated graphics. And when the movie "San Andreas" premiered last year, she tweeted from the theater.

"All these people were asking us 'Is this real?' And it was like, 'Why are you trying to learn your seismology from a Hollywood movie?'"

She taught Californians to be earthquake ready, but she's leaving her job with one big thing undone.

"I've spent my life studying an event that I may not live to see. I thought it would happen before I retired. The Big One."

But if it does come, she promises to come out of retirement to help us all understand what happened.

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.