Sometimes I am left shaking my head with disbelief at the rubbish that people try to pass off as science. DNA has a story of Mr. Amit Dave a BMC engineer who has put forth a new earthquake prediction method using the alignment of planets in the solar system as a guide. Yes, astrology now enters the field of earthquake prediction. According to him plate tectonics has nothing to do with earthquakes, it is all in the planetary positions. And its not just earthquakes, but hurricanes and floods too pay obeisance to the remote planets. Mr. Dave, and I found this hilarious, was recently transferred from the Mumbai disaster management cell (hey wait, this man needs to be made chief of the disaster management cell if he can really predict disasters), says that he has not yet predicted the next occurrence (surprise surprise) and needs time to work out this theory (he's been working at it since 1993). But Dave claims that several big earthquakes in the past occurred when the moon and Jupiter and Saturn were in "potent" positions. By the way this is not the first time someone has claimed a relation between the planetary positions and earthquakes, so Mr. Dave does not have a claim to priority here. But I think it is important to point out that claims that have appeared in literature on planetary influence on seismicity have been carried out on small data sets and seem to show an apparent relation with very shallow, small seismic events in continental volcanic regions (Mammoth Lake California) or along mid ocean ridges but these correlations break down for larger data sets and for larger earthquakes. Here is Mr. Dave's "theory" as reported by DNA:
The earth consists of a thin upper crust and molten lava, magma. The inner crust is semi-solid and hot. Like tidal waves, this molten lava is also influenced by tidal currents. The moment the high tide pull is more, it breaks open the crust and earthquakes occur. If the crust breaks completely, it results in a volcanic eruption. Dave says the most potent quakes occur when the sun, Jupiter, Saturn, and the moon are in mutual potent positions like 0º, 90º, 180º, and 360º. The two planets change their direction of motion from direct to retrograde from time to time. The gravitational pull exerted on the earth by this movement induces a change in momentum, mass and velocity of the molten lava, creating disturbances.
There is just so much wrong here that is is difficult to know where to start. Let's start with the forces involved. In typical pseudo-science fashion, Mr. Dave has done a lot of arm waving regarding planetary positions but there is no mention of actual forces involved and whether they might cause damage to the earth. Turns out they cannot. The gravitational force of the moon that an object on earth experiences is only a tiny tiny fraction of the earth's gravitational pull on that object. That means that the miniscule additional force of the moon is simply not enough by itself to create large enough stresses within the earth to break and rupture rocks in the interior of the earth. Bad Astronomy has a detailed calculation of the forces exerted by the moon, sun and other planets in the solar system. "The force of the Moon on you is only about 0.000003 times the Earth's. For me, that means I weigh an extra 0.0009 pounds more when the Moon is under my feet versus when it's on the horizon (and therefore not contributing to the downward pull of the Earth)." Other planets contribute even less and the effect of tidal forces is even tinier than gravity. The entire article is worth reading. I doubt if Mr. Dave read it. Practitioners of psuedo-science never go into the trivial details of actually understanding forces and mechanisms. They only use jargon to impress. Now, the moon does deform the earth slightly in 12 hour semi-diurnal cycles called solid earth tides. But long term monitoring of these cycles and earthquakes has shown no significant correlation between solid earth tides and large earthquakes. Dave makes much of the influence of Saturn and Jupiter but calculations show that the combined influence of all the planets in the solar system is about 1 billionth the influence of the moon. So, no "potent" alignment of planets will make any discernible difference. Which brings me to my second point and the link between earthquakes and magma that Mr. Dave makes. Mr. Dave's theory requires that there be magma in the region where earthquakes occur, since his mechanism of earthquakes is that molten material in the earth's interior is pulled by the moon and other planet's gravity and that causes the magma to break the crust. Just to clarify, the earth's crust does not contain a uniform layer of molten material. Magma occurs in discrete magma chambers localized mostly along plate boundaries and zones of anamolous mantle heat flow within plates, such as beneath the Hawaian islands. I just made a list of big earthquakes in Asia that have occurred in recent memory. Koyna 1967, Kinnaur H.P. 1975, Uttarkashi 1991, Killari 1993, Bhuj 2001, Kashmir 2005, Sichuan 2008. All of these measured more than 6 on the Richter scale. None of them are associated with recent volcanism nor is there magma underneath these locations. We know that by studying the pattern of seismic wave propagation through the earth's crust. These studies indicate only solid crust. Only crustal stresses set up by the larger plate tectonic configuration in the region can explain these earthquakes. Mr. Dave badly needs a lesson in basic geology and plate tectonics. He seems completely ignorant of how the earth works geologically.
By a coincidence or call it the favorable alignment of planets, along with Mr. Dave's public announcement came the news that geologists have drilled and recovered core material from the San Andreas fault zone, one of the most earthquake prone region in the world. And guess what? No magma there either. But as predicted by plate tectonic theory, evidence of rocks crushed and sliding past each other due to the relative movements of the Pacific and North American plates.
I think one of the reasons why people readily believe such claims is that it can be shown that some past big earthquakes did occur when planets were aligned in preferred positions. I don't doubt that. If you go through a list of several thousand earthquakes a few are bound to coincide with whatever planetary alignment that you deem to be potent. The mistake is to ignore one of the most basic rules of statistical analysis which is correlation need not mean causality. Just because two events are coincident there does not have to be a cause and effect relationship between the two. Planets may have been aligned in a certain way when the Sichuan earthquake took place but that does not mean they caused it. Mr. Dave's "theory" lacks a workable mechanism. Only plate tectonics and internally produced stresses can provide it. Reading articles like these really make me mad. But I am mad more at the media than at Mr. Dave. I mean kooky theories are proposed by people all the time. But doesn't the media, in this case DNA have some responsibility in being more selective in the manner by which they publish such claims? Our media is too hooked on to sensationalism and does not take it's role of reporting science seriously at all. It's reporters have not training in science and are too ill prepared, uncritical and gullible, unable to distinguish between quackery and valid science, which is a real shame since most people in India get their science news from such newspaper articles.
Update: Mr. Dave left some questions for me in the comments section. I have answered those in a separate post: Geology Lessons To An Astrologer
Disclaimer Sept. 17: Contrary to some comments left on this post I did not predict the Sept. 17 earthquake which occurred in the Satara district of Maharashtra. Nor did anyone else. Don't let people fool you otherwise. You have to give accurate location information (latitude and longitude) along with a hypothesis in terms of geological forces and stresses acting at that location why an earthquake is likely or imminent. Simply saying that an earthquake will occur on this day and time does not qualify as a prediction. The reason is that there are plenty of earthquakes occurring everyday on earth. On average about 10-11 earthquakes of 6-7 magnitude occur every month, 3 earthquakes of 5+ magnitude occur everyday and more than 20 earthquakes of 4+ magnitude occur everyday somewhere on earth. Without a location and a justification "predicting" an earthquake is easy!! :-)
I'll be writing a larger post on this later maybe in a couple of weeks. Do visit again.
Update: Was September 08 Earthquake Month?