exercises in compound storytelling

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Gribbin and Plagemann: The Jupiter Effect

View of the San Andreas Fault on the Carrizo P...Image via Wikipedia
John R. Gribbin and Stephen H. Plagemann's 1974 book The Jupiter Effect: The Planets as Triggers of Devastating Earthquakes is believe it or not a book by two scientists (with a foreward by Isaac Asimov, of all people) that predicted a massive California earthquake in the early 1980s. Nowadays it seems like a curosity in a number of ways: it presents data using charts and graphs that were state of the art in 1973 or thereabouts; it talks about massive changes but doesn't mention climate change, global warming, or even peak oil; it even talks about scientific issues without mentioning politics.

It presents a relatively straightforward story: every so often California has a massive earthquake that impacts  one end of the San Andreas fault or the other: either San Francisco and the Bay Area up north, or Los Angeles down south. This is because the San Andreas fault is where the North American plate and the Pacific plate meet, and these two plates are slipping past each other at a fixed average rate, but not at a fixed actual rate. This means that every so often there has to be an earthquake to "catch up:" that is, to release energy stored in the fault over time. The authors present what is reasonably well understood about how often this slippage occurs, present current theories about why earthquakes occur when they do, and propose a theory to explain some of the effects not explained by other theories.

They focus on four sometimes overlapping factors: earth tides, earth spin, solar flares, and sunspot cycles. Earth tides are just what they sound like: periodic movement of the earth along the shoreline due to periodic effects. The spin of the earth has some impact on earth tides, and it fluctuates over time, causing the day to get longer or shorter by tiny fractions of a second. Solar flares seem to have some impact on the changes in the rate of the earth's spin, and the occur because of sunspots. Sunspots and solar flares occur regularly enough for radio experts to issue sunspot weather reports with almanac-like accuracy.

And finally, the authors' theory: planetary alignment causes sunspots. They leave it to the reader to track the uneven distribution of planets as a cause all the way back to the San Andreas fault, where they theoretically would have caused a massive California earthquake in March 1982. Fortunately the massive earthquake didn't arrive.

I hesistate to say it's a shame the earthquake didn't arrive. Of course the sort of displacement and disaster the book predicts would have been awful, but the book itself is one of the leanest, most linear and lucid popular science books I've ever read. It also spawned a sequel, The Jupiter Effect Reconsidered, but I will probably give that one a miss.
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