Movin’ and Shakin’

Some say we’re “overdue” for a seismic event on the west coast or a pandemic everywhere.  But you can’t be overdue for a random event.  Random is unpredictable.  But then again, what’s a random event?  Is it a pandemic, as occurred in 1918, 1958, and 1968?  Is it earthquakes?  Is it volcanoes?  How about tsunamis, or hurricanes?  Some are predictable while still random.

Science is evolving.  We are getting better at predicting volcanoes, perhaps a couple of weeks in advance.  For big weather events we need a week.  For earthquakes, we’re not that sure.  Some research says that we’re better off monitoring Tweets which say such things as, “Did you feel that…my books just fell off the shelf…” and so on, rather than relying on instruments which take longer to react.    

Some scientists suggest we may be due for a surge in seismic activity.  Where?

Most us of think that California has the most frequent earthquakes.  So, we might not think to look to the emergency plan writers in Louisville to tell us more.  But that is actually one of the best places to look.  In that plan we find that Alaska has the largest number of earthquakes.  Most are in uninhabited areas so we don’t read about them in the news.  

But then we find out that neither California nor Alaska have had the largest quakes in history.  They are along the New Madrid Fault.  Where?  Not San Andreas, not Cascadia, but New Madrid.  That’s in what is now Missouri.  It wasn’t in the news and there were no disaster movies made about it that I now of.  Why?  It was in 1811 and 1812 long before movies and your daily newspaper.   That’s why you didn’t read that there were three quakes larger than 8 on the Richter scale.  It would have made front page news, because the San Francisco quake in 1906 was a 7.8.  One of the New Madrid quake on December 11, 1811 rang church bells in Boston, 1,000 miles away.      

Few people lived around the New Madrid fault.  Attention was probably focussed on the War of 1812.  But now, about 12 .5 million people live in the area.       

Out at the pointy end of math and game theory, there are a couple of debates.  One is whether past history is a good indicator of future events.  Some say “No,” it’s more likely the dot on the graph where we are at right now.  Some also say that there is actually a pattern to be studied, even in the flipping of a coin which is supposed to turn up heads or tails randomly.

Here’s an example of the first phenomenon.  The World Health Organization has predicted a future pandemic might kill 350 million people.  They must have studied the 1918 event—before the flu virus was isolated in a lab, before everyone had indoor plumbing, before building codes required sinks in the same room with toilets, and so on.  There is more international travel now, but also better health care.  How would you construct a model with these variables?

On the second example, looking back at the dates of earthquakes and the oral history of original peoples is a little like hearing about all the coin flips you’ve seen and heard about in a bar.  What’s next?

In the first example, science, math and engineering have progressed to the point where historical data can’t provide much of a guide because what’s happening now is all so new.  In the second example, science has not progressed to the point of understanding the natural phenomenon or even if it is a natural phenomenon.  

So, stock up on food, bolt stuff down, and wash hands three times a day.  

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