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Keilis-Borok remembered for earthquake prediction research

UCLA Professor Vladimir Keilis-Borok died from heart illness on Oct. 19 at his home in Culver City. The internationally known mathematical geophysicist and seismologist was 92.

UCLA Professor Vladimir Keilis-Borok died from heart illness on Oct. 19 at his home in Culver City. The internationally known mathematical geophysicist and seismologist was 92. Courtesy of Anna Kashina

Vladimir Keilis-Borok, a professor emeritus in the UCLA Department of Earth and Space Sciences and an internationally known mathematical geophysicist and seismologist, died from a heart illness on Oct. 19 at his Culver City, Calif. home. He was 92.

Keilis-Borok is known for his contributions in the field of earthquake prediction and his passion to exchange ideas with different kinds of people, his friends said.

“He was much more than a grandfather,”said Anna Kashina, Keilis-Borok’s granddaughter and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “He was my best friend. He taught me how to be a writer, a scientist and a human being.”

His research team had successfully predicted two large earthquakes that occurred in Japan and Central California in 2003, said Peter Shebalin, a professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences who worked with Keilis-Borok.

“He is one of the strongest leaders in the field of seismology,” said Ilya Zaliapin, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Reno who worked with Keilis-Borok on earthquake prediction.

Besides being an accomplished scientist in his field, Keilis-Borok was also known for his compassionate heart, said Kashina.

Friends of Keilis-Borok described him as someone who loved talking to all kinds of people, from young students to store clerks to waiters in restaurants. They said he could immediately engage in inspirational conversations with people and was sincerely interested in what people were doing.

“He had an extraordinary ability to communicate with people,” said Andrei Gabrielov, a professor at Purdue University who worked with Keilis-Borok. “I believe that’s one of the reasons why he was such a great scientist.”

Keilis-Borok had a distinguished career as a mathematical geophysicist in Moscow before he came to UCLA in 1998.

During the 1960s, he studied the problems of wave seismology. In the ’80s he started working with a team of scientists on earthquake prediction algorithms, a relatively new area of study in the field of seismology during that time.

Keilis-Borok’s main research focus at UCLA was an earthquake prediction method called “Reverse Tracing of Precursors” that can be used to predict the specific region and time of large earthquakes by examining patterns and precursors in reverse order.

Keilis-Borok’s work in the field has made earthquake prediction a much more respectable discipline today when it was considered to be a controversial area of study by many scientists 10 years ago, said Shebalin, who developed the Reverse Tracing of Precursors algorithm with Keilis-Borok.

“People would criticize his methods for predicting earthquakes, but he was consistently optimistic about this field,” Zaliapin said.

Besides studying earthquake patterns, Keilis-Borok also applied his method used to predict earthquakes to predict socioeconomic events with notable success, such as several presidential elections and surges in crime rates.

Among other areas of study that he was immersed in, Keilis-Borok had a special appreciation for Russian poetry and art, Shebalin said.

Shebalin said Keilis-Borok knew experts and specialists from all fields of study and loved discussing his ideas with young scientists and colleagues.

“He always told me that scientists should not work alone,” Shebalin said. “He was extremely passionate with his work and always had a lot of ideas to discuss with different people.”

Many remember Keilis-Borok as a person of passion and inspiration. He was known to have a warm and genuine smile that some of his friends described as “legendary.”

Kashina said Keilis-Borok spent a lot of time reading and telling stories to her when she was a child. He had a special love for the mountains and often took her hiking and traveling. She said the times she spent with her grandfather later fed into her interest in writing and science.

“He taught me that there are a lot of things to learn in life,” said Kashina.

Keilis-Borok is survived by a daughter, a granddaughter and two great-grandchildren.

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