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The myth of “earthquake weather”

by Donald Prothero on Mar 19 2014
Shaking intensity map of the March 17, 2014, Sherman Oaks quake

Shaking intensity map of the March 17, 2014, Sherman Oaks quake

As Saint Patrick’s Day was beginning to dawn here in Los Angeles, most people in the central and western side of the city were abruptly awakened just after 6:30 a.m. by a 4.4 magnitude quake on the north side of the Santa Monica Mountains, near Woodland Hills, where I teach geology at Pierce College. It awoke my family during the 2-5 seconds of shaking, but I slept through it. I’ve been through the 1971 Sylmar quake, the 1987 Whittier quake, the 1994 Northridge quake—every major quake here since I was born in the region, so a piddling 4.4 doesn’t even rattle me. I even was lucky enough to experience a rare Eastern earthquake when I felt the Virginia quake of August, 2011, from the top floor of the Frick Wing of the American Museum of Natural History.

We immediately turned on the news and got the basic information about the quake, as the magnitude was downgraded from 4.7 to 4.4 when better data came in, and the location was moved from Westwood to Sherman Oaks, closer to the actual fault line on the north side of the Santa Monica Mountains. Most of the reporting was competent, although in the early stages, it’s largely silly stuff like “Did you feel it?” and “What did it feel like?” rather than anything accurate or scientific that would tell us something important about the quake. Sure enough, sooner or later it was bound to happen: one of the “man-on-the-street” interviewees spouted  the geologists’ least favorite myth: “Oh, it was warm yesterday, so there must have been earthquake weather.” Fortunately, the news anchor was smart enough to dismiss this urban myth and move on to another interview, but if you surfed the internet, it was full of claims that “earthquake weather” must have caused this quake. (Geologists’ other pet peeve: people—especially  news anchors and reporters—using the term “tidal wave” for tsunamis, which have nothing to do with tides. Fortunately, the lessons of the Dec. 26, 2004, Sumatran quake and tsunami seem to have reduced the incidences of these displays of ignorance ). (continue reading…)

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“Cosmos” Reboots

by Donald Prothero on Mar 12 2014

COSMOS-SAGAN-TYSON
Like many scientists, for over a year I’ve been anxiously awaiting the first episode of the new version of “Cosmos,” starring Neil DeGrasse Tyson. A reboot of the classic series originally done by Carl Sagan in 1980, this version is co-written and co-produced by Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan. It is also co-produced by “Family Guy” creator Seth Macfarlane and by Jason Clark (producer of “42″, “Ted”, and the newly released “Mr. Peabody and Sherman”, which premiered the same weekend; he’s married to former actress Kimberly Beck, a high-school classmate of mine).  I figured with these people at the helm, and Tyson as the spokesperson, they would not disappoint. But I was not prepared for how amazing the first episode turned out, even given those high expectations.

It aired on Sunday, March 9, on Fox, which had me a bit concerned, given the political bent of their news network, but this was because Macfarlane has good connections at Fox thanks to “Family Guy”. As the evening started, I was watching my Facebook feed and Twitter to see the reactions from those who saw it in all the time zones before I got my chance in Pacific Daylight Time. I was a bit worried to see a few of my Facebook friends didn’t like the show, but overall it seemed that most of them loved it. Finally, we got the kids to bed and it aired at 9:00 p.m. our time. This is mighty late if they wanted to reach anyone under 12, or for early-to-bed, early-to-rise people like me who get up before 6:00 a.m. It is especially so since we had just gotten the change to Daylight Saving Time that same morning, and most of our biological clocks were out of whack. (continue reading…)

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The quake that shook the world

by Donald Prothero on Mar 11 2014

On March 11, we mark the third anniversary of the huge Sendai earthquake and tsunami in Japan (officially known as the Tohoku quake of 2011, since it struck that region). It was the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan, and the fifth most powerful quake ever to occur since modern recordkeeping began in 1900. It started when the oceanic crust about 70 km (43 miles) to the east of Tohoku and 30 km below the surface thrust down into the subduction zone beneath Japan. This plate movement produced a quake with a moment magnitude of 9.0, and it caused the islands of Japan to shift 2.4 m (8 feet) east in a matter of seconds. The upward acceleration on the quake was almost 3 times the force of gravity, so many objects flew up in the air. It released almost twice as much energy as the Sumatran quake on Dec. 26, 2004, which killed a quarter of a million people. The energy released by the quake would have been enough to power Los Angeles for an entire year. The earthquake even shifted the earth’s axis and caused it to wobble as much as 10-25 cm (4-10 inches). It also generated low-frequency sound waves that could be detected by satellites.

The quake shook up my life in many ways. Just weeks before, my new book Catastrophes! had been published, and the publicity folks at Johns Hopkins University Press asked me to be prepared to get a big boost of press events and sales if a natural disaster occurred. Sure enough, a week or two later we heard the news from Japan, and suddenly my phone was ringing off the hook. The next morning, I found myself getting up at 5:00 a.m. to drive over to a studio where I could speak directly to the East Coast audiences on MSNBC twice in a few hours–my first experience as a “talking head expert” on TV. Then I got home and found a call from the Los Angeles Times for a short piece on earthquakes and preparedness, which I wrote in just two hours and was published on the editorial page of the Times the next morning. That same day it appeared, I got a call from Mayor Villaraigosa, who wanted my opinion on earthquake preparedness in Los Angeles, and what we should do besides our annual “California Shake-Out” drills each October. Over the next few months, I found myself doing interview after interview: NPR, BBC, PBS, and numerous other radio and TV outlets. Never in my life have I gotten so much free publicity for promoting a book! (continue reading…)

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Sagan Versus the Flying Saucers (an Excerpt from Junior Skeptic 50)

by Daniel Loxton on Mar 09 2014

JrS50_cover_preview

With the world of popular science nerdery (my world!) on fire with excitement for tonight’s premiere of the new television miniseries Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, I thought I might share a small excerpt from Junior Skeptic 50—our special celebratory look back at the life and legacy of Carl Sagan. You can find this short, kid-friendly biography of one of skeptical history’s most inspiring figures bound inside Skeptic Vol. 19, No. 1, which ships shortly. Subscribe to Skeptic today in digital or print formats!

For age-appropriate simplicity, the format of Junior Skeptic does not include endnotes (though I often call out important sources in sidebars or in the text of the story itself). Here, for your interest, I’ve included some relevant citation endnotes from my research: (continue reading…)

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Plesiosaur Peril: Science and Speculation on the Behaviours of Plesiosaurs

by Daniel Loxton on Mar 05 2014

Spread from Plesiosaur Peril, from Kids Can Press. Art by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith. All rights reserved.

In one Plesiosaur Peril illustration, a juvenile Cryptoclidus (the book’s protagonist) looks on while her mother swallows carefully selected stones.

With my new children’s paleofiction storybook Plesiosaur Peril hitting stores now (find it at Skeptic.com, Amazon.com, and Amazon.ca), I thought I might tell you a little bit about how I kept the story grounded in plausible natural history.

Like my previous two Tales of Prehistoric Life books, Pterosaur Trouble and Ankylosaur Attack, the intention on Plesiosaur Peril was to create a readable, age-appropriate storybook that both looks real and also reflects the genuine science on these animals and their habitat to the greatest possible degree. I had wonderful support in the goal of accuracy, both from my editor Valerie Wyatt and from the good folks at Kids Can Press (see this post for an epic example).

Our science consultant—paleozoologist Darren Naish—was absolutely critical to my attempt at scientific accuracy (or given all the unknowns, scientific plausibility) on both Pterosaur Trouble and Plesiosaur Peril. Naish was involved in both books from the first steps, consulting on both the character designs and the story elements. I sent Darren rough plot outlines and shopping lists of activities, behaviours, and interactions that I pictured for the story. He gave me detailed feedback, drawing upon the knowns of the fossils record (all too few!) and the plausible inferences that are made currently by those who study the fossil evidence.

To give readers a window into this behind-the-scenes process and a chance to deeply explore the behaviours of plesiosaurs, Naish has posted a lengthy reflection on these weird and wonderful marine reptiles over at his Tetrapod Zoology blog at Scientific American: (continue reading…)

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Early Twitter Reactions to Plesiosaur Peril

by Daniel Loxton on Mar 05 2014

Plesiosaur_peril-cover
Whew! It’s always a wonderful and slightly dream-like experience to release a new book, and my latest paleofiction storybook Plesiosaur Peril is no exception. From signing a contract to holding the finished book in your hands, these things take years to bring to fruition. Sometimes it feels that they’ll never quite exist—and then poof, they’re out! It catches you by surprise.

Happily, despite my astonishment at this long-scheduled release, the book is now hitting stores (including Skeptic.com, Amazon.com, and Amazon.ca.).

Also gratifying, the first few Twitter reactions to Plesiosaur Peril seem quite positive:

(continue reading…)

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The $10 million Bigfoot bust

by Donald Prothero on Mar 05 2014

A few months ago, there was a big buzz of publicity for a new show on Spike TV called “The $10 Million Bigfoot Bounty”. As I described in my post shortly after it began, it was a cross between a typical competitive reality show in a rugged location (like “Survivor” or “The Amazing Race”), with a veneer of cryptozoology to give it a new twist. Originally, eight teams of two people were to compete for a $10 million bounty if they found good evidence of Bigfoot, and a $100,000 “research grant” as a consolation prize for the team that did the best even if they didn’t find  Bigfoot. The series was hosted by former “Superman” actor Dean Cain, and the judges were molecular anthropologist Dr. Todd Disotell and primatologist Natalia Reagan.

Well, the show finally aired its eighth and last episode (some of which can still be watched on the show’s website). If you were watching a few episodes and want to follow it to the end, I won’t reveal everything and spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that none of the teams were very competent, so the “winner” could have been just about any of the original groups of contestants, except for those who were so completely out of shape and unfamiliar with the woods that they dropped out after a round or two. And it should come as no surprise (since it taped last summer and there were no leaks of amazing discoveries) that no evidence of Bigfoot was found—not even close! Nobody won the $10 million bounty. Instead, the final competition hiking all around the Porcupine Mountains State Park on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan hinged on whether one of the two teams didn’t bicker all the time—since the “evidence” both teams obtained was worthless. In the teaser for the episode, Disotell says they each got primate DNA! And then, after commercial, he finishes his sentence and says that it was human DNA (probably from the “hunters” themselves). (continue reading…)

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Revealing Cover of Junior Skeptic 50

by Daniel Loxton on Mar 03 2014

Cover of Junior Skeptic 50 (bound inside Skeptic Vol. 19, No. 1). Art by Daniel Loxton. All rights reserved.

I’m very happy (even possibly, I’ll admit it, a little giddy) to reveal my cover artwork for our special, celebratory 50th issue of Junior Skeptic, bound inside the upcoming Skeptic Vol. 19, No. 1! Stand by for more details this week, but I think you’ll know what I mean when I say that this Junior Skeptic hearkens back to the very best of the skeptical tradition—our warmest, strongest heart.

SUBSCRIBE to Skeptic today!

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“Observational” vs. “historical” science? Pure bunk!

by Donald Prothero on Feb 26 2014

Csi_Logo

One of the recurring themes at the Feb. 4 debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham was Ham’s continuously harping on a supposed distinction between “observational science” (science we can observe in real time) and “historical science” (science that must be inferred from the past). This strange distinction is almost unique to Ken Ham, although I’m sure he borrowed from older creationist writings somewhere, since I remember reading about it when I researched creationism in the 1980s. Nevertheless, Ham kept pounding on it again and again, refusing to talk about any scientific evidence that couldn’t be witnessed in real time.

As many scientists have discussed, this distinction is complete bunk, and only Ken Ham and his followers seem to think that it makes any sense. Naturally, he pounds on this phony, self-serving, artificial distinction because it plays in his favor. Each time Bill pressed him on one point or another, Ham retreated behind his dodge of no one can know anything of “historical” past, then made the ridiculous assertion that the only reliable source of information about the past is the Bible. (Bill was too much of a gentleman to challenge him on this and ask Ken how he knows this. As Ham always says, “Were you there?”). Most of science tells us that the earth is old, that life has evolved, and so on. Ham wants to throw all this information away, so he creates a convenient but ridiculous distinction that serves his purposes—but bears no relation to what real scientists do or think. (continue reading…)

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Announcing Release of Plesiosaur Peril

by Daniel Loxton on Feb 24 2014

Plesiosaur_peril-cover

Hi, folks!

I’m excited to announce that my brand new children’s paleofiction storybook Plesiosaur Peril is hitting stores now (official release, March 1, 2014)! Look for it at Skeptic.com, Amazon.com, and Amazon.ca.

(continue reading…)

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