Warning: You Have 30 Seconds . . .

It's one thing to warn people that the Big One is coming -- someday soon. Engineers can design stronger bridges and sounder buildings; city planners can guide development in ways that reduce hazards. It's quite another thing to sound the alarm for an earthquake less than a minute away. Such early-warning systems are technically feasible, though there is debate about whether they would save lives or promote panic.

Convinced that every extra second is of value, Japan has invested mightily in these systems. Originally such devices were not tripped until the ground began to shudder -- scant notice indeed, though enough...

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