The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy...  ...Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (1977).

Commentary of the Day - October 23, 1999:

Innumeracy :

As I mentioned in my last commentary, the students here at Krispy Kreme U tend to have difficulty counting to twenty without taking off their shoes.  An article in our local campus newspaper, The Daily Titan (also known in some quarters as The Daily Fish Wrap),  last week caught the Irascible Professor's eye because it relates at least obliquely to innumeracy.  The headline read "DISASTERS MAY PROVE PREDICTIONS TO BE TRUE", and the article went on to present a somewhat muddled account of Nostradamus's prediction of catastrophic earthquakes in the month of October.  The article also included a prediction of a major earthquake on May 5, 2000, when there will be an "alignment" of the earth, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun, and a new moon, that was based on another of Nostradamus's prophecies that vaguely referred to a shift in the earth's axis.

Now there was a magnitude 7.4 earthquake in Turkey in August that killed some 15,000 people, and a magnitude 7.6 earthquake in Taiwan in September that killed approximately 2,000 people.  However, so far this month the two large earthquakes recorded in populated areas have been far less catastrophic.  The 7.5 magnitude quake on October 1 in Mexico killed only a few dozen people, and a recent 7.1 magnitude event in the southern California desert caused only a few minor injuries.  Thus, it would seem to the Irascible Professor that good old Nostradamus missed on his prediction this time.  The killer quakes this year were in August and September, but not in November - at least so far!

More interesting in the IP's view, however, is our intrepid Daily Titan reporter's comments on the result of the "shift of the earth's axis" and the planetary "alignment".  She writes that

Although the effect the shift will have on the Earth is unknown, some scientists believe that it will cause either 1,000-foot waves traveling at 1,000 miles-an-hour, or 1,000 mile-an-hour winds which will destroy cities throughout the world.  Scientists also believe the catastrophe will be accompanied by a continuous series of earthquakes off the Richter scale.
Now, without getting too technical, these statements seem a little far fetched.  First, the speed of ocean waves is determined by the laws of physics.  Assuming that you could have a "1,000 foot wave", its speed, assuming the wavelength was of comparable magnitude, would only be something like 45 miles per hour.  Likewise, the possibility of "1,000 mile-an-hour" winds in the atmosphere is pretty remote, since that would be faster than the speed of sound in air.  However, our trusty reporter shows her innumeracy in the last sentence.  The Richter scale is an open ended logarithmic scale.  No earthquake could ever be off such a scale.  There is a close relationship between the energy released in an earthquake and the Richter magnitude.  The energy released in a magnitude 6.0 earthquake is roughly the same as that released in the explosion of a 1.0 megaton nuclear weapon, the energy released in a magnitude 7.0 earthquake is roughly equal to that released in the explosion of 32 megaton nuclear weapon.  The largest recorded earthquake, the 1960 Chilean earthquake, had a Richter magnitude of 9.0 and released roughly 1,000 times as much energy as a 7.0 magnitude quake (1000 is roughly 32 times 32).

Geologists have been able to show that the Richter magnitude of an earthquake is related to the length of the fault break.  To have a magnitude 10.0 earthquake, you would have to have an earthquake fault that nearly circled the entire earth break from one end to the other.  Perhaps our Daily Titan reporter should have signed up for Geology 101!

As to "planetary alignments" causing such catastrophes because of the extra gravitational attraction caused by the so-called "Jupiter effect", there was a similar alignment in 1982 along with doomsday predictions of major earthquakes.  We seem to have survived 1982.  The alignment that will occur next year, actually will be less complete than the 1982 case.  The reason for the Jupiter non-effect is that gravitational force of the sun on the earth is some 18,000 times as strong as that exerted by Jupiter.  The IP is willing to bet that we will make it through May 5, 2000 without experiencing any earthquakes "off the Richter scale".


The Irascible Professor invites your comments.
©1999 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.