20/20 Hindsight

Even the best and brightest can get things wrong, which is why science depends on corroboration to get things right. On Respectful Insolence, Orac investigates the conviction of six Italian seismologists for failing to warn people about an earthquake that killed 300. Orac writes “‘earthquake swarms’ are not uncommon in the L’Aquila region” and “a medium-sized shock in a swarm forecasts a major event within several days only 2% of the time.” But for accurately assessing the risk of a major event, the government employees have been sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter. On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel outlines the requirements for a truly scientific prediction, adding “some natural phenomena are simply presently beyond the reach of science.”  Meanwhile, on The Weizmann Wave, new research contradicts the hypothesis that certain lake bacteria can substitute arsenic for phosphate in their DNA. Rather than exploit the local abundance of arsenic, these bacteria “have actually evolved to reject it ever more efficiently.”


What Makes a Planet?

Greg Laden draws our attention to an object named Vesta, which by itself makes up 9% of the asteroid belt. Greg says “if you take the largest handful of objects in the asteroid belt, Ceres, Vesta, Pallas and 10 Hygiea, you’ve got half of the mass of the entire thing, according to the most current estimates.” According to NASA, Vesta is even differentiated, meaning it was once hot enough to form a core, mantle, and crust. On Life at the SETI Institute, the Analysis Lead on NASA’s Kepler project explains how to spot a planet from hundreds of millions of miles away. Dr. Jon Jenkins says “We’re looking for one part per 10,000 drop in brightness caused by this tiny planet blocking a small fraction of the light from the star.” Kepler finds about ten new planetary candidates every day, and can also “hear” starquakes, the “songs of the stars.” Finally, on Starts With a Bang!, Ethan Siegel brings planetary dynamics closer to home. He says earthquakes occur as the planet differentiates itself, bringing the heaviest elements to the core, and the lightest elements to the surface. Every time this happens, the world spins a little faster.

Indiscriminate Force Rocks Japan

The staggering 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan March 11 sent a thirty foot tall tsunami raging up to six miles inland, with diminished waves reaching all the way to the Pacific Islands and the shores of North America. In Japan, thousands are dead, and the devastation is stunning. On Thoughts from Kansas, Josh Rosenau reflects that due Japanese diligence may have spared millions of lives, noting “the earthquake in Haiti last year, which was 100 times weaker, killed 230,000.” On Observations of a Nerd, Christie Wilcox recounts her experience in Hawaii, from watching the disaster unfold on television to waiting for the “eerie tsunami sirens” to wail. And Greg Laden screens a collection of videos showing the initial havoc in Japan.