Caryl Johnson of Portland, a brilliant polymath and pioneer in the field of seismology, died Friday at age 73.

Caryl Johnson Photo courtesy Kay Aikin

Johnson’s groundbreaking early work in seismology formed the basis for modern earthquake detection systems and even inspired a passage in author Tom Clancy’s 1984 spy thriller “The Hunt for Red October,” said Kay Aikin, Johnson’s life and business partner.

Thanks to Johnson’s uncanny ability to find connections among wide-ranging fields of knowledge, she went on to make advancements in areas as diverse as geothermal energy, electrical grid controls and cervical cancer research.

“She was the smartest person I ever met,” Aikin said. “Caryl was on a whole different intellectual level.”

Johnson died at Maine Medical Center from complications related to cancer.

Born in Marshalltown, Iowa, Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in geophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a doctoral degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology. She had a long and varied career as a scientist, educator and entrepreneur, living in Southern California and Hawaii before coming to Maine.

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Johnson is most widely known for her work in earthquake detection, where she developed one of the first computerized seismic processing systems for locating earthquakes in real time, Aikin said. Forms of Johnson’s seismic processing software are now regarded as the global standard and are used throughout the world for monitoring earthquakes and providing quick disaster response.

Her work was adapted for use by the U.S. Navy in the 1980s to form a key part of its upgraded sonar combat system. In “The Hunt for Red October,” there is a scene in which one character explains to another how the Navy’s sonar combat system was based on research in seismology.

“Caryl was the inspiration for that conversation,” Aikin said.

Johnson spent most of the 1980s as a geophysicist for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southern California Seismic Network. She went on to teach geology and geophysics at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu in the 1990s, while also researching the process of magma flow inside Kilauea, an active volcano, and raising her three children.

Johnson went on to work for the defense industry, where she developed a new way to use spectral imaging for anti-submarine warfare that was later repurposed to help doctors diagnose cervical cancer, Aikin said. At aerospace company BAE Systems, Johnson worked on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems for the Navy that combined her broad scientific knowledge in big data, navigation, imaging and artificial intelligence technology.

Johnson moved to Portland in 2012, where she and Aikin co-founded a business, Introspective Systems. Among her many projects, Johnson developed a decentralized computer-control system for managing the complex wind and solar energy-reliant power microgrid on Isle au Haut.

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Her solution involves tiny, inexpensive computers known as Raspberry Pi devices that are placed at each power customer’s location. The devices collect information on power usage, supply and pricing while constantly communicating with each other, learning patterns and adapting automatically to make real-time decisions that help maintain a reliable and cost-effective power supply.

Isle au Haut Electric Power Co. President Jim Wilson said Johnson’s “visionary” solution to the island’s problems of power cost and reliability are a perfect example of how Johnson could take principles from one scientific discipline – in this case economics – and apply it to another discipline such as power grid management.

“She developed a solution that is innovative and takes a whole different perspective on the problem,” Wilson said. “It’s a really, really clever idea.”

Longtime Maine entrepreneur and investor Don Gooding was one of the early angel investors in Introspective Systems. Gooding said that as a former technology venture capitalist, he has developed the ability to recognize an “off-the-charts brilliant” technical mind when he meets one.

“She was one of those,” he said of Johnson. “She had an ability to see a very big picture, and to connect the dots between a variety of different things to help solve major problems.”

When Johnson wasn’t absorbed in research or computer programming, she was a voracious consumer of educational material and an avid computer gamer. Aikin said Johnson once boasted that she had logged over 20,000 hours in her lifetime on the multiplayer online role-playing game EverQuest.

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Johnson also had the type of high-level sarcastic wit that often would require the recipients of her humor to think for a few moments before they figured out the joke, Aikin said.

Johnson’s mind was always working, always striving to solve the next problem. That work didn’t stop until the moment of her death.

“The day before she went in the hospital, we were designing algorithms on her board in her office,” Aikin said.

Johnson’s survivors include Aikin; children Kathryn Kaminski, Bryn Martinsen and Alex Johnson; former spouse Nancy Johnson; and grandchildren Teodor, Mason, Amalie, Anna and Ellia.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Dec. 14 at Introspective Systems, 148 Middle St., Suite 1D, in Portland. Those planning to attend should RSVP via email at [email protected]. The family has requested donations to Maine Medical Center in lieu of flowers.

Correction: This story was updated at 9:00 a.m. December 4, 2019 to correct the date of Caryl Johnson’s memorial service.


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