“Can I Visit the Richter Scale?” and Other Seismology Questions
Question: What are the greatest misconceptions that the public has about earthquakes?
Arthur Lerner-Lam: Well, you know, obviously the public has a great interest when an earthquake happens and so we do our best… best we can. The questions tend to be repetitive. Almost always we get a question from somebody about whether they can come see the Richter scale, do we have an example of the Richter scale. The Richter scale is a mathematical calculation. In fact, seismologists don’t use it anymore. The only reason we give a Richter magnitude frankly is for the press and the media, but we have much better ways of measuring the energy of an earthquake now. But the second question that has cropped up and it’s fascinating in its own right is that the first time I heard it I thought it was a fluke, but I’ve heard it so many times since Haiti that I wonder what is going on and that is, “Are these earthquakes related to global warming?” I’m serious about that. I’d say that most of the press and most of the public that have called in that didn’t have specific domain knowledge has asked us that question. We also get questions whether, you know, 2012 is coming a couple of years early. We get that sort of thing. “Is this the end of days?”
But I think it speaks of something more interesting, which is that earthquakes and major disasters have a certain impact on the public consciousness and I think earthquakes more so or even volcanic eruptions more so than anything else. You know we get a major hurricane, a few major hurricanes ever year or we get floods every year. They’re major disasters that cause an enormous amount of economic damage and casualties, but yet we hear about them relatively often and so we kind of think of that as kind of background. This is what the earth doing to us, but earthquakes, especially major ones are relatively rare. We get a few major ones a decade, particularly ones with huge numbers of casualties and the concept of an earthquake, that it shakes the firmament, that it removes your footing, that it could destroy everything in a blink of an eye and that it is unpredictable, that it just happens, even if your rational in a scientific way, even if you’re rational in even a theological sort of way you get a… it has to have some impact. You know the response, the scientific response to the Chile earthquake although modulated a bit by the damage and by the casualties still was this is a major earthquake, we’ve got to look at this as well as we can because we only get a couple of shots a decade to look at this, so now there are teams of scientists and lots of instrumentation going to Chile, but when you get down to Haiti or something like Haiti. When you get a direct hit on a capital city. When the bulk of the nation is affected where you have damage that far exceeds their economic ability to come back, coupled with the fact that an earthquake literally moves the ground on which you’re cited you started asking basic questions like: “Should I even be here? Should I be living here? Do I have to move? What is the future of my country? What is the future of my city?” And those are the sorts of questions that I think have such a big impact on the public that by necessity I think we’ve got to talk about them. We’ve got to talk about what it means.
I think science is somewhat ill equipped to do that. We quantify everything. We enumerate the energies, the displacements, the ground motion. We have technology and we have lingo, but none of this relates to somebody who is asking the question, “My house was destroyed.” “Where should I move?” It relates of course in a very quantitative scientific way, but how do you approach that person? How do you assure them that the situation has a rational response? And I don’t think we have a good way to deal with that, so a lot of the questions we were getting and a lot of the thinking that generated had to do with the central questions of what does this mean particularly for the future of Haiti, but what does this mean when we talk about taking steps to mitigate against future tragedy, future disasters, not just for earthquakes, but for the other major natural disasters as well and to me that… and to many of us I should say, it’s not that we haven’t thought about this before, but it seems to me to be an area not just of research, but of sort of a way to link directly to the public, directly to the people who need to understand what it is we’re doing as scientists.
You know, I can make the same sort of argument about climate change, for example, but earthquakes serve… I use a phrase and I don’t mean to use it lightly, but earthquakes serve as training days for the major environmental disasters, major environmental stresses that our planet faces and if we can begin to address how we relate to the public, now we provide assurance, how we help the public to understand what it is that is happening to them. If we can understand how to do that for major earthquakes or major hurricanes then perhaps we can do something about stuff that is even more major, more in the future, more emergent, more probabilistic where we actually might have a chance in modifying our behavior to do something about it.
So what I’ve taken away from this interaction from Haiti and Chile, and I must admit it’s not new to this earthquake. We’ve had it before with the Indonesian earthquake and the Indian Ocean tsunami. We’ve seen it in earthquakes going as far back as the '80s and the '70s in places like Armenia and China and so on, but what we’ve taken away from this is that there is a conversation that scientists have to have with the public that the public will regard as deeply meaningful, which means we can’t just throw our results over the fence. We can’t just stick with our technical journals. There has got to be some other mechanism and in my view, I think universities where we ascribe to liberal thinking, the small-L liberal, you know, that ought to be a good place to do it, and I think the universities have that kind of role to play beyond the roles that governments and other social institutions play.
No, earthquakes aren’t caused by global warming. But popular confusion about them provides a rare opportunity for science to conduct meaningful conversations with the public.
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"Nothing but naked people: fat ones, thin ones, old, young…"
"The Yellow Sands", 1888, John Reinhard Weguelin; source: Wikimedia Commons<h3>Naked revolution</h3><p>Yet long before anyone knew about beach fashion, naturism was trendy. Bathing naked in the sea was going on in England as early as 1840. However, during the reign of Queen Victoria, this pleasure was outlawed. But it popped up again among the conservative Germans. In 1898, the first Naturist Club was founded in Essen and in 1900 the Wandering Birds group (<em>Wandervögel</em>) was scouring the country for uninhabited places and naked sunbathing. In the same year, Heinrich Pudor wrote <em>The C</em><em>ult of </em><em>the </em><em>Nud</em><em>e</em>, winning the hearts of contemporary supporters of naturism.</p><p>In the 1920s, on the back of this, members of the Movement for Natural Healing (<em>Naturheilbewegung</em>) organized naked sunbathing for the improvement of health. Persuaded by Pudor's theory of the healing properties of the sun and wind, which could be absorbed through the skin, they launched the naked revolution.</p><p>Pudor's book became the naturists' manifesto and soon after, not far from Hamburg, the Free Body Culture (<em>Freikörperkultur</em>, or FKK) movement was founded. This spread through other German centres and brought together thousands of people. The FKK still operates under the same name today.</p><p>The cult of the naked body even wrote itself into the ideology of fascist Germany, which advocated a pure, Aryan race. But in 1933, Hermann Göring issued an order that defined nudity as "the greatest threat to the German soul" and, with that, criminalized naturist organizations. But this wasn't the end of the movement. The naturists went underground, continuing their activities under the guise of improving physical fitness.</p><p>In 1936, the idea was even floated of having a naturist display to open the Berlin Olympic Games. It was quickly dropped. Despite this, in 1939 the naturists managed to organize their own Games in the Swiss village of Thielle.</p>
A strange weakness in the Earth's protective magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.
- "The South Atlantic Anomaly" in the Earth's magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.
- The information was gathered by the ESA's Swarm Constellation mission satellites.
- The changes may indicate the coming reversal of the North and South Poles.
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Crows have their own version of the human cerebral cortex.
Action-packed pallia<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0NzkyMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNzk1NzM1OH0.Tjb3zulFW2gwhteR124F9HGbmdnCqNqQFOBQouieTJ8/img.png?width=980" id="2bbc9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2907e4035e553565f4446e968ee73d92" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Fun with Ozzie and Glenn<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0Njk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzY4Njc2MX0.ZgpsPMCK6qOj2o0kErvVPjdua1EnMCIwCuHHGrb3LiY/img.jpg?width=980" id="acbeb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2e286fecbb228a5ca8aa26fcd19f95a2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="two crows in a tree" />
Ozzie and Glenn not pictured
Credit: narubono/Unsplash<p>The kind of higher intelligence crows exhibited in the new research is similar to the way we solve problems. We catalog relevant knowledge and then explore different combinations of what we know to arrive at an action or solution.</p><p>The researchers, led by neurobiologist <a href="https://homepages.uni-tuebingen.de/andreas.nieder/" target="_blank">Andreas Nieder</a> of the University of Tübingen in Germany, trained two carrion crows (<em>Corvus corone</em>), Ozzie and Glenn.</p><p>The crows were trained to watch for a flash — which didn't always appear — and then peck at a red or blue target to register whether or not a flash of light was seen. Ozzie and Glenn were also taught to understand a changing "rule key" that specified whether red or blue signified the presence of a flash with the other color signifying that no flash occurred.</p><p>In each round of a test, after a flash did or didn't appear, the crows were presented a rule key describing the current meaning of the red and blue targets, after which they pecked their response.</p><p>This sequence prevented the crows from simply rehearsing their response on auto-pilot, so to speak. In each test, they had to take the entire process from the top, seeing a flash or no flash, and then figuring out which target to peck.</p><p>As all this occurred, the researchers monitored their neuronal activity. When Ozzie or Glenn saw a flash, sensory neurons fired and then stopped as the bird worked out which target to peck. When there was no flash, no firing of the sensory neurons was observed before the crow paused to figure out the correct target.</p><p>Nieder's interpretation of this sequence is that Ozzie or Glenn had to see or not see a flash, deliberately note that there had or hadn't been a flash — exhibiting self-awareness of what had just been experienced — and then, in a few moments, connect that recollection to their knowledge of the current rule key before pecking the correct target.</p><p>During those few moments after the sensory neuron activity had died down, Nieder reported activity among a large population of neurons as the crows put the pieces together preparing to report what they'd seen. Among the busy areas in the crows' brains during this phase of the sequence was, not surprisingly, the pallium.</p><p>Overall, the study may eliminate the layered cerebral cortex as a requirement for higher intelligence. As we learn more about the intelligence of crows, we can at least say with some certainty that it would be wise to avoid <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/26/science/26crow.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">angering one</a>.</p>