Category Archives: Science

Seattle and Portland Are 72 Years Overdue For A Horrific Earthquake

Yes, you thought right: there hasn’t been a major earthquake in the Pacific Northwest since it was discovered by Western civilization. There have only been seven recorded in the region, averaging 6.3 in magnitude and killing 14 people total. And Seattle is the least likely metropolitan area in the US to have a natural disaster of any kind.

In fact, until 50 years ago, no one thought that earthquakes were much of an issue at all, in that area. But then, tectonic plate theory became mainstream and scientists noted that earthquakes and volcanoes were prevalent all around the so-called Ring of Fire: New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, Alaska, California, Mexico and Chile. Notice how we skipped right over the Pacific Northwest: the scientists noticed that too.

plate tectonics

The world’s tectonic plates. In the Pacific Northwest, the Juan de Fuca plate goes under the North American plate.


A very interesting article in The New Yorker tells us that these scientists then started drilling into the ocean floor off the coast of Washington state and found out that they could tell, from the stratification of the earth, when and how much land from the continent rushed into the sea — meaning, an earthquake had occurred, and how big it was. They went back 10,000 years and counted 41 major earthquakes, which means one happens every 243 years, on average. We know it’s been at least 210 years since there’s been one in that region, since Lewis and Clark went there in 1805. But how long has it been really?

Besides the ocean floor evidence for the year, we actually have some much cooler, and much more accurate data.  There’s a “ghost forest” near the beach in Washington State, by the Copalis River. It’s called that because it consists of a bunch of dead trees standing in sea water. The theory had been that sea water got into the forest and killed off the trees but, in the late 1980s, two scientists figured out that they actually all died at the same time, in the winter of 1699-1700. So, due to that sudden onset, they theorized that an earthquake actually plunged the forest about six feet into the sea.

Copalis ghost forest

Copalis ghost forest

That’s pretty cool on its own, but then in 1996, they got historical confirmation: the Japanese have been keeping track of tsunamis for over 1400 years, and they knew that earthquakes caused them. But there was one “orphan” tsunami for which they felt no preceding earthquake: it happened on January 27th, 1700, and we now know that the reason they didn’t feel the parent is because the epicenter was so far away, off the edge of the Pacific Northwest. Ten hours after it shook, the tsunami it created had crossed the Pacific and hit Japan. It also turns out that the Native Americans of the region also have stories about entire tribes being wiped out long ago by the earth sinking into the sea, and canoes being flung into trees. It would’ve been the seventh strongest earthquake known to history.

So there you have it: the last earthquake to hit Seattle happened about a hundred years before Lewis and Clark, and 315 years before now. Subtract the average of 243 years from that, and you get an uncomfortable 72 years of the region being overdue for a big one. The most recent deadly quake the US had, was a 6.9 magnitude one near San Francisco, in 1989: it killed 63 people. The one that destroyed San Francisco in 1906 was 7.8 and killed 3,000 people — the most of any earthquake to hit the country. The one that hit Japan in 2011 was 9.0 and killed 16,000 people. It was the strongest one that country, which gets weekly earthquakes, had ever seen and the fourth strongest known to man. The one coming to Seattle could register 9.2.

Earthquake magnitudes are logarithmic, so a 7.8 earthquake is 8x stronger than a 6.9 one, and a 9.0 earthquake is 16x stronger than the 7.8 one. To find out how much stronger one earthquake is than another, take 10 to the power of the difference between them; for example: 10**(9.2-6.9) = 199.53. This means that the one coming to Seattle could be 200x stronger than the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. (By the way, did you know the Richter scale has been obsolete since the 1970s? The above, and generally all earthquake measurements, are actually stated in the Moment Magnitude scale.)

And to be clear, this is not fringe science: FEMA officially believes that there’s a 37% chance of an earthquake with magnitude 8.0 to 8.6 hitting the Pacific Northwest in the next 50 years; a 10-15% chance it will be in the 8.7 to 9.2 range. Because the area is horrendously ill-prepared for an earthquake, it will kill 13,000 people, destroy the local economy (including Amazon and Microsoft headquarters) and take almost two years to repair the infrastructure.

However, all of this might actually not happen until after the year 2160: before the earthquake in 1700, the previous two were in 1310 and 810, which makes 390 and 500 years between them. In fact, the average period between the last five earthquakes in the area was 460 years: almost twice the length of the 10,000 year average. Maybe they’ve just slowed down over the past couple of millenia, or maybe we’re overdue for quicker ones. In any case, move over San Andreas Fault: the Cascadia Subduction Zone is the new thing to fear.

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via The New Yorker

Synthetic ‘Tru’ Blood Has Been Synthesized In Transylvania, Of All Places

I had to double check to make sure this wasn’t April Fool’s Day, because when you hear — on Halloween, no less — that Transylvanian scientists invented artificial blood, it seems too good to be true. But it all checks out: according to The Daily Mail, researchers from a university in the medieval city of Cluj-Napoca say they’ve synthesized blood and used it in lab mice with no adverse effects. Instead of hemoglobin, it uses an oxygen-carrying protein called hemerythrin, which is found in marine invertebrates. The scientists hope to start clinical trials in the next couple of years.

Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, where the research took place

Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, where the research took place


In the HBO series, Tru Blood was created by Japanese scientists, and its invention allowed the vampires to finally reveal themselves, since they no longer had to kill people for sustenance. No doubt the thought crossed some writer’s mind to have the artificial blood invented by vampires in Transylvania, but it probably seemed too on the nose. Well, it’s nice to know that sometimes reality can outdo fantasy.

Incidentally, Cluj-Napoca was originally settled by Germanic colonists called Transylvanian Saxons, and was known as Klausenburg. King Matthias I Corvinus of Hungary was born there, in 1443. (House Corvinus is an ancient vampire family in the Underworld series.) And a final little known fact: Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula, lived in Transylvania for only a short part of his life, while in exile from his home principality to the south, Wallachia. Both regions are now part of Romania.

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From The Daily Mail, via Slashdot

Actually, Women Are Quite Fertile Until Their 40s

Both popular and scientific consensus is that female fertility peaks around 27 years of age, then drops sharply such that by 35, the odds of getting pregnant are not good, and by 40, they’re virtually non-existent. However, that conclusion is actually based on some very questionable data: French birth records from around the 18th century. More recent studies show that women aged 35-39 have somewhere around an 80% chance of getting pregnant within a year of trying, which is roughly 5% less than younger women.

The top left graph, from a 2002 issue of TIME magainze, is likely wrong. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine does not cite their source.

The top left graph, from a 2002 issue of TIME magainze, is likely wrong. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine does not cite their source.


Why is the modern medical community relying on 200 year-old data? Because, thanks to modern science, modern birth records are useless: most women now have children in their 20s and then use birth control to stop having children in their 30s, after they’ve had a couple. Instead of looking at records, scientists could just study some people to get statistics, but it’s hard to find large numbers of women trying to get pregnant, especially since that window is generally less than six months. And asking them later to remember how long it took is very unreliable. Not to mention that a large number of women over 35 who are trying to get pregnant are only doing so because they were infertile when they were younger — most people are not that careful about getting pregnant.

So, the choice is between data from a time when there were no antibiotics, fertility pills, or even proper nutrition, and data from a time where birth control makes study subjects scarce. The latter is still probably better, but the three modern studies on fertility included only 400 women over 35, which is that representative of the global population. And besides its age, a big problem with the historical data is that, in the 1700s, people likely would stop having much sex after having had a few kids in their 20s, which would make the data look like women were infertile in their 30s when really, they were just not having sex.

All things considered, the modern data is a lot more reliable than the historical one. Also, most fertility problems are not related to the woman’s age, but rather blocked tubes, endometriosis, or male infertility. The take-away is this: women in their 30s do experience more miscarriages, but are only slightly less fertile than in their 20s.

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Voyager 1 Has Now Left The Solar System 22x

On the heels of the latest news that Voyager 1 — the farthest man-made object in the universe — has left the solar system, xkcd decided to tally up how many times this has happened before:

The hover text reads:

So far Voyager 1 has ‘left the Solar System’ by passing through the termination shock three times, the heliopause twice, and once each through the heliosheath, heliosphere, heliodrome, auroral discontinuity, Heaviside layer, trans-Neptunian panic zone, magnetogap, US Census Bureau Solar System statistical boundary, Kuiper gauntlet, Oort void, and crystal sphere holding the fixed stars.

Note that some of those aren’t actually at the edge of the solar system, or even real things.

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From xkcd

Get Drunk More Quickly With Diet Soda

Finally, a study that tells you how to save money at the bar: people who used diet sodas as mixers, as opposed to sugary ones, got 18% more drunk. The researchers gave two groups of eight people the same amount of alcohol, but one group had diet mixers. That group’s peak breath alcohol level was 0.091, whereas the sugary group’s was only .0.077. Which, if they decided to drive, that diet soda would’ve been the difference between a DUI and not — the legal limit is 0.08 in all 50 states.


The scientists’ explanation is that sugar helps your body absorb the alcohol more slowly — the same reason you get drunk more slowly on a full stomach than an empty one. So, drink regular Coke if you wanna be more sober, but diet Coke otherwise. (Though, keep in mind that diet soda is not particularly good for you. Soda water probably works just as well, since it has no sugar.) And if you’re driving, get a breathalyzer, because none of the study subjects felt impaired. They even make ones for the iPhone now.

The study will be out in the April issue of Alcoholism.

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An Egg Inside An Egg

It’s like a Russian egg doll: a chicken farmer apparently found an egg that was really big, so he cracked it open, only to find another egg inside. And lest you think this is a hoax, it’s not: eggsperts call the phenomenon ovum in ovo.

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From YouTube, via FAIL Blog



Commander Gives A Great Tour Of The Space Station

Sunita Williams was the commander of the International Space Station from September to November of 2012, and the first person to do a triathlon in space (she lifted weights to simulate the swimming portion). A few hours before leaving the station to head back to Earth, she shot this great 25 minute video tour of the various capsules and showed how they do everything in space, from working out to going to the bathroom:

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From YouTube, via Laughing Squid

Biology + Computing = Designer Bioweapons

Over the past couple of decades, biologists have succeeded in cataloging the genetic makeup of all kinds of species, including humans. For a few thousand dollars, anyone can now get their genome sequenced. Technology has also advanced to the point where biological molecules can be created: simply create a blueprint, send it to a lab, and they send back a live version. And if you create some DNA, insert it into an bacterium cell that’s been emptied of its own DNA, it will start reading your new DNA and follow the instructions encoded within it — just like a biological version of a computer. Put all of this together and what it means is that in the not-too-distant future, biosynthesis — the creation of biological material — will explode, based on the promise of medicine made just for you: a virus that will attack just your cancer cells and leave the others alone, a vaccine for the particular strain of flu going around your town, or an injection that will help your body digest your food better in order to lose weight.

Swine Flu (H1N1) Virus


But, as The Atlantic points out, with great power, comes great responsibility: people smart enough to make a virus that will attack a specific cancer cell will also be able to make one that will kill the President, and only the President, leaving little, if any, trace. The scenario they flesh out is this:

  1. Someone gets a hold of the President’s DNA
  2. They create a virus that targets only cells with his particular DNA and causes flu-like symptoms that quickly lead to death
  3. They infect a student at Harvard University with the virus, a couple of days before the President visits
  4. The student passes the virus along to others, and by the time of the visit, half the student body is a carrier, possibly experiencing flu-like symptoms
  5. The President catches the virus while there, then a few days later dies, apparently from the flu
  6. Since the virus is unique, there’s no test to detect its presence in the President’s blood. His relatives, who share much of his DNA, may also get sick

That’s just one very specific scenario, but it can be tweaked in countless different ways: perhaps the virus is designed to lie dormant for several months; perhaps the virus doesn’t kill, but rather affects the President’s brain chemistry to make him forgetful, aggressive, or to appear insane. It doesn’t even have to be designed for one person: it can be made to kill everyone that has red hair or is related to bin Laden. It also doesn’t have to be a virus: it could be sperm, used to create children as proof of an affair. Or it could be a new designer lifeform, like a gryphon or a dragon. And all of this will be within the power of a new breed of engineers that will essentially program biological software. Says The Atlantic:

“Bill Gates, in a recent interview, told a reporter that if he were a kid today, forget about hacking computers: he’d be hacking biology.”

The benefits of the technology as a cancer cure alone means that it will become reality as soon as humanly feasible. The nature of the technology also means that it will be difficult to control domestically, and impossible to control within the borders of countries like Iran and North Korea. Therefore, the main apocalyptic threat for the 21st century will no longer be nuclear weapons, but rather biological ones.


The Secret Service already tries to keep the President’s DNA from falling into the wrong hands, and the FBI has a Biological Countermeasures Unit that works with biosynthesis companies to ensure that their nascent systems are built with security in mind. In the near future, limits will likely be imposed on who can place an order for biological material to be synthesized and effects may be simulated by a computer before it is created — although, intentions can probably be obscured. Eventually, we may build a gigantic network of sensors sampling the air all over the country and analyzing it for any molecules out of the ordinary. If a new virus is discovered, an antidote will be synthesized and released in the same areas. In effect, it will be a nation-sized anti-virus system.

From The Atlantic

If There Are So Many Stars, Why Is The Sky Dark At Night?

It might sound like a stupid question at first, because of all the black darkness in between the stars, but the answer is actually evidence of one of the fundamental properties of our universe. The problem comes in when you realize there shouldn’t be any darkness at night: there are trillions of trillions of stars in the universe, and their light should literally be filling up the sky all the time. So then why is it mostly dark? Some stars are really far away and their light hasn’t gotten here yet, but there are still plenty of stars whose light should be flooding our tiny planet. Which it is — we just can’t see it, because by the time the light gets here, it’s infrared.

Night Sky. Photo by Scott Wylie


If the universe were constant and stars stayed in the same position, the night sky would be indeed be filled with light. But because the universe is expanding, stars are constantly moving away from each other, and therefore away from us, too. That motion causes redshift, which is what happens to light from an object that is moving away: the wavelength increases due to the Doppler effect, and since color is dictated by the wavelength of light, it first appears more and more red and then infrared, which we can’t see anymore. So the sky is dark because most of the light that we would normally see — from all the countless stars — has been shifted to infrared on its way to Earth — because the universe is expanding.


Scientists Discover New Monkey That You’ll Never Hear About Again

Last week, it was widely reported that a new species of monkey was discovered, as if it actually mattered to anyone that’s not a biologist. The other 99.86% of the population was also informed that this was only the second discovery of a new species of monkey since 1984, prompting many to wonder why scientists are still discovering monkeys in the 21st century. “I was pretty sure they already bagged and tagged all the animals like in the 1800s, and then this happened,” said someone, probably.

The "new" monkey looks just like a regular old monkey


But the let-downs didn’t end there: according to science, the discovery is a type of Old World Monkey, of which there are over a hundred different species with names like Allen’s swamp monkeyGrivet, and Mandrill. Great apes and New World Monkeys are not part of this grouping. When informed of the primate taxonomy, many of the population of a dinner table complained about there being far too many species of monkeys and briefly wondered how they managed to not be extinct by now, followed by whether or not the new one was tasty. However, the final blow in the supposed news item came out of nowhere: the discovery was actually made in 2007; the scientists in question required five years to publish the discovery, claiming that it took that long to make sure it really was a new species. “It’s just not that different than its hundred other cousins, but… it’ll get us published,” thought everyone involved.