Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Earthquakes and supermoons

Like many people, during the last 24 hours I have been glued to the images and videos coming out of Japan.  The devastation wreaked by the 8.9-magnitude earthquake is surreal -- burning buildings being swept along by the tsunami, roads split right down the center line, a barge spinning in a whirlpool.  My heart goes out to the people of Japan who are now facing the overwhelming work of picking up the pieces, healing the injured, rebuilding the homes, burying the dead.

At times like this, people look for answers.  Why did the earthquake occur there?  Why was it so strong?  Was there something scientists could have done to predict it, to warn people?  Unfortunately, our knowledge of tectonic geology is just not refined enough to predict accurately where a fault zone will slip.  Japan is a highly active place, seismically -- it is an island arc raised by the movement of the Pacific Plate underneath the Eurasian Plate, and this movement causes not only earthquakes, but volcanism.  Japan is prone to both, for the same reason that Indonesia, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and the Caribbean are.

But that's not enough for some people.  There are people who don't just need reasons, they need Reasons.  They need, somehow, to connect tragedies like this one to Great Doings in the Cosmos, to give the impression that it's all part of some meaningful pattern.

Enter Richard Nolle, an astrologer, who has publicized the claim that the earthquake was due to an "extreme supermoon."

A "supermoon" occurs because the moon's orbit is slightly elliptical, and so it is sometimes closer to the Earth, and sometimes further away.  The point at which it reaches its nearest approach (the lunar perigee) is independent of the phases of the moon, which have to do with the angle made by the sun/earth/moon system.

Occasionally, of course, the moon will be full when it's at its perigee.  This happens regularly, if infrequently.  This is a "supermoon."  And Richard Nolle says that it's bad news -- he predicted a few weeks ago that when the next supermoon occurs, on March 19, we'll have earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and storms, your washing machine will go off balance, your mortgage check will bounce, and your cat will puke up a hairball on the rug.

Okay, I made the last part up.  But what Nolle proposes is about as ridiculous.  There is no connection between the lunar perigee and geologic events -- the increase in the moon's gravitational pull at perigee is negligible.  A connection between earthquakes and the lunar phases has been proposed -- since most fault systems are under water, a tenuous connection might be made between fault slippage and tides, but research has shown that any increase in geological activity because of the movement of the oceans during the tides is 1% or less.

What bothers me is that Nolle is now pointing to the Japanese earthquake as vindication of his claim.  Never mind that it occurred on March 11, and the moon is still nine days away from full, and about a quarter of a revolution away from perigee.  If you believe in pseudoscience, you have no need to let paltry trivia such as the facts get in the way.

All of this, however, is a small matter as compared with the actual reality of what the Japanese people are going through.  It is tempting, at times like this, to try and see a deeper meaning in it all, to try to connect what happened with the universe as a whole, to try to make it make sense.  The scary truth is that it doesn't make sense -- things like this happen, and it remains for us not to waste time trying to explain them, but to open our hearts and help the survivors put their lives back together.

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