predicting earthquakes

Unlike most Californians (and yes, I still consider myself a Mainer), I can remember only two earthquakes in my lifetime, neither of them significant. One was in Maine, and felt very much like a truck going by, when there was none (my initial reaction was actually that my mother was cooking vigorously downstairs in our rickety old house). The other was here in California, when the house started swaying back and forth (such an event that I raced to my room to make sure that Caoimhe was okay, but she seemed more surprised by my sudden appearance).

Most earthquakes, like these, are relatively harmless. After my second, I was informed of the "Safeway Rule," which is, to those on the east coast, if the quake's national television coverage is comprised of images of cans in the aisles of grocery stores, fear not, as that is the extent of catastrophe.

Other earthquakes, however, can be disastrous. The deadliest on record was in 1556 in Shansi, China, which killed approximately 830,000 people. The Great Sumatra-Andaman earthquake in 2004 had a magnitude of 9.3, lasted 8-10 minutes, triggered other quakes all the way to Alaska, and moved the entire planet 1 centimeter (no small feat!). The resulting tsunamis killed more than 225,000 people around the Indian Ocean. The most recent shaker, in Sichaun Province, China, was an 8.3 on the Moment magnitude scale, and as of June 8, has left about 70,000 dead, 18,000 missing, and almost 375,000 injured.

The Great Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake

These tremors are devastating, and can kill hundreds of thousands of people, in addition to costing countless sums of money in damage. So what can we, as the highly intelligent species that we are, do to gain some kind of warning? Anecdotal stories of chickens or dogs going crazy and goldfish jumping out of tanks may not be reliable indicators. Our seismographs, though they be essential to the measurement of size, can only give us maybe a minute's warning, and often give false results. Surely, we can do better.

It turns out we may be able to, from space.

When the Earth was formed 6000 years ago, water molecules were churned into and captured within the rock, which was then subjected to extreme heat and pressure. This broke apart the water molecules, forming byproducts such as oxygen and hydrogen, but also crystals within the rock that conduct electricity. In the early stages of an earthquake (weeks before we feel them), increased pressure at the point of interaction causes changes in the chemical properties of these crystals, changing the electrical field surrounding them. Electric fields create magnetic fields, and this electrical field generated has such magnitude that a large magnetic field and a slight infrared (IR) glow radiate out from the Earth at the epicenter of the coming quake.

Imaging the ionosphere

Scientists have been able to detect large changes in magnetometer readings in the weeks and days leading up to a major quake, such as the one in 1989 that shook the SF bay area. However, the magnetic field also sucks in negative ions from the ionosphere, essentially creating a dimple in the atmosphere, up to 12 miles deep. This also affects communications between satellites and radio towers. Using special satellites that measure IR signatures while communicating with GPS satellites, we can detect these heat signatures and dimples, up to two weeks before a major tremor.

How do we know all this? In 1960 and 1964 in Chile and Alaska, respectively, changes in the ionosphere created radio interference in the days before major earthquakes. Prior to a cluster of quakes in Japan in the late 1960's, people reported seeing eerie lights in the sky, which could have resulted from ion movement. In 1989, after the Loma Prieta earthquake, researchers went back and examined magnetometer readings leading up to the earthquake, and found that two weeks prior, the local magnetic field began increasing, peaking at 60 times normal three hours before the tremor, and persisted in the weeks after.

Epicenter of the Sichuan Quake

The most recent evidence, however, comes from the disaster in China: on May 2, a scientist working for NASA at George Mason University noticed the telltale IR signature and changes in the ionosphere above the Sichuan Province. He sent a memo to some of his colleagues, which was only leaked to the public.

Ten days later, The Great Sichuan Earthquake, magnitude 8.3, killed 70,000 people.

Should they have gotten the memo?




inside the cell

Technology has come a long way. No longer are we restrained to only looking at cells under a microscope or pictures in books from expensive electron microscopes, but computer animators today can render the invisible functions of the cell in incredible detail. Below are two links you should check out. The first is an article about computer rendering technology with a teaser video, and the second is the original video, created for biology students at Harvard but available to students worldwide. It's an amazing film, and captures the nanoscopic functions of the white blood cell in captivating detail. Check it out:


http://multimedia.mcb.harvard.edu/media.html (the "Inner Life" animations at the top of the page, pick one depending on your connection speed)



what inspires you?

For some, a carefully crafted painting by Claude Monet is a subject of fascination, whether it serves to entrance, by the way light is captured with the delicacy and precision of each brush stroke. Or, it inspires, making the viewer yearn to put life to canvas in the same fashion that it was so many years ago.

Others are inspired by the steady hands of an experienced neurosurgeon, the skill of a high-speed precision air racing pilot, the intricacies of mind-blowingly complex confidence schemes, or by someone's ability to continuously burp the entire alphabet (okay, maybe not since 4th grade).

What inspires me? Apparently, the same thing that motivates Brian Greene, world famous physicist and author of The Elegant Universe, a book on String Theory which was also made into a PBS miniseries that he hosted.

On June 1, Dr. Greene wrote a letter to the New York Times about the importance of science in our lives, and how it should be (though, sadly isn't) valued in the same way that we value art, business, or language.

As Brian Greene states, we all start out our conscious lives as scientists... one of the most oft heard questions for any toddler's parents is "Why?" Why is wood fire yellow and stove fire blue? How do planes stay up in the sky? Why do bees and hornets and wasps all have black and yellow stripes?

I wonder how well a lot of parents can answer these questions, as many likely don't know the answers themselves. That's not to say they have no idea, but that the true meaning beneath a simple answer is likely lost on many people. In fact, the answers to these questions weren't really fully answered for me until I went to college and took classes in Chemistry, Physics, and Biology on my own volition.

How many of you had such memorable experiences in your high school science classes that you were driven to become lifelong scientists? I know I didn't. With the exception of an excellent and highly acclaimed high school physics teacher (Steve DeAngelis, whom I unfortunately had for only one semester of a year-long class), my high school Biology and Chemistry classes were hardly as interesting as Photography, Theater, or French (and perhaps I'm an exception when it comes to French). In fact, those basic science classes, learning about the periodic table or the organelles of a cell, turned me off of scientific pursuits. The world was much more interesting, it seemed, than the sciences could offer, especially when it came to fighting fires and chasing crooks.

After spending a few years in various forms of public service, I found myself back in school, ready for a change. My dream career had left me alternately bored and stressed out, and I needed to feed my brain some more. Moving to California, I enrolled at Cabrillo College, and started taking classes in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

It was here that my passion for science was ignited, quite literally, by my chemistry professor, Josh Blaustein. If you don't know him, Josh has a propensity for causing large explosions in small lecture halls, often followed by applause, if not a literally stunned silence. To this day, I remember a particular lab in that Chemistry class that involved burning various liquids containing metal ions to see what color they would be. Strontium was red, Copper was green and Potassium was a lovely shade of periwinkle. Question 1, answered. (It's also because of Josh that I know that liquid oxygen (boiling point -297 °F) is blue, and that, when poured on Corn Flakes and ignited, the combination could feasibly power a small rocket.)

Another inspiration is Joe McCullough, whose enthusiasm alone could wake up anyone in an 8AM Physics class (assuming he showed up on time). Joe can speak with the same aptitude and passion about the science behind the bowling ball-pendulum swinging perilously close to his face, the Van De Graff generator giving him frequent, painful electric shocks, and the calculations behind fluid forces as applied to an airplane wing (Question 2, answered), and he can lead informative discussions on the aforementioned String Theory.

The science that has won the majority of my fascination, however, and that to which I devote my academic pursuits, is Biology. John Carothers' knowledge base of obscure animal facts is simultaneously fascinating and humbling. Through his course in Animal Diversity and Evolutionary principles, I've learned amazing things about Hyena fetal development, why you shouldn't put a cone snail in your wet suit, and how Mullerian mimicry works for poisonous snakes of Central America (Question 3, answered). I've also developed the personal opinion that the octopus in evolutionary terms, is the most advanced animal on this planet (I didn't even tell you about the three hearts or the inverted structure of the polarity-sensing retina!).

These three professors have been an inspiration to me over the last two years, not because they know a lot or wrote fancy papers when they were grad students, but because they have spent the time since then refining their teaching techniques, figuring out the best way to get the majority of their students interested in the sciences. Whether it's designing a Rube Goldberg machine of fire to explode a balloon of oxygen propane in equal molar quantities, awarding prizes to those who can produce the most standing waves in a string, or singing obscure songs about interrelatedness and marrying one's grandmother to explain the benefits of sex, these guys have found a way to light a fire in the minds and hearts of their students and hopefully drive them on to bigger and better things.

For all the wonderful things that I've learned in the past two years, it's somewhat frustrating that it took me this long to realize how much I've been missing. This is what Brian Greene talks about in his June 1 letter. Entry level science, as it's currently taught, is less about the fascinating world that can be discovered and appreciated and more about memorizing the fundamentals, which are often quite boring. It's no wonder that so many students quickly lose interest if all they do is learn parts from a 1970 drawing of a cell or devote their homework to learning the Bohr model of the atom (which isn't even accurate, so who knows why they still teach it). If young people could be shown the most amazing, most intricate, and most beautiful parts of science first, Greene argues, then they might be more inclined to go back and say "how does that work?" In writing, it is said that the introduction should be something that captures the attention and draws the reader in. Why shouldn't science be the same way? To a novice science student, memorizing the Krebs cycle of the mitochondrion is nowhere near as fascinating an introduction as would be knowing that insects have, instead of lungs and capillaries, tiny air tubules that enter the sides of their bodies and go to each and every cell, ending right next to those same mitochondria.

Brian Greene, my aforementioned mentors and I agree that science is incredibly valuable, and should hold a place in the same high esteem as all other parts of life. I encourage you all to read his short letter, reconsider the education you tried not to sleep through in high school, and then do as my brother is and sign up for Scientific American.

You'll never know what might capture your attention.