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Wednesday 6 August 2014

How Much Gold?

Gunning Fog Index = 11.35

"Would that gold could have been banished for ever from the earth, accursed by universal report!" - Pliny the Elder, Natural History Book XXXIII, Chapter 3 -

Today's topic is the abundance of gold - in the universe, in meteorites, on the earth, in the oceans - basically everywhere. Why? Because of a blog post from the end of May by physicist William Straub on the blog website (1), which Straub writes and maintains. Incidentally, if you're at all on the nerdly side, I recommend this blog. I think Straub's the first person I've run into who can write about Reimann geometry engagingly. But he doesn't write about physics exclusively - he also wanders across stuff like politics and economics and other "soft science" topics. His blog site is actually focused on the theories of the early 20th century physicist Hermann Weyl and how these fit into quantum physics and relativity. If you like knowing about the history of science, this is a blog for you. I really love this guy's blog. There's an entire blog post with the title "A Brief Look at Gaussian Integrals." Sheer nerdly bliss!

Anyway, the following paragraph by Straub from his May 20 blog entry is today's example of being wrong on the internet. The subject of his blog post is asteroid mining and why it's improbable. He makes some really good points based on the estimated costs to mine the asteroid belts. I have no quibbles there. I'm picking on the good Dr. Straub because of this:

"Closer to home are the asteroids that orbit the Sun between Mars and Jupiter, many (if not most) of which are made primarily of primordial iron and nickel, though there's no reason not to think they may also have huge amounts of gold, platinum and other precious metals. All of the gold ever produced on Earth would fit into a cube 50 feet on each side, and a single gold asteroid could easily surpass that amount." (ibid.)

I have differ: this looks to me like a misrepresentation of what we know about gold, elemental abundances and the solar system. We'll look at why I believe this but to do so will cover a lot of ground. As a result, this blog post is the first of two parts on this topic. In this part of "How much Gold," we'll look at some recent journalist writing on the subject of Gold and see who is quoting whom, with varying amounts of journalist sloppiness and lazy internet plagiarism identified. Part two will tackle the deeper subject of how we know what we know about the abundance of gold, even in places that we can't directly sample, like the sun or the core of the Earth.

So what do we know about elemental abundances, including gold? If you think about it, you should realize that there's no direct way to measure the abundance of gold on earth or any other planet. There's no giant scale out in Space where we could weigh all the gold on the planet. Our knowledge of elemental abundances is based on an handful of observations, some conjectures and some scientific arguments. We're going to look at these (mostly in part 2); and when we're done, you should see that this house-sized cube of gold invoked by Dr. Straub is the product of mostly arm waving and some sloppy journalism. Like many other scientific topics, estimating the abundance of gold is not a simple task; however, many journalists won't look at the science even if they can understand it. Instead, most journalists will make a bee line for an expert to quote since it saves them time and effort. The huge downside of journalists relying experts is that some of those experts aren't experts. Often the authority queried or quoted is merely a well-known pundit, celebrity or convenient secondary source - but not a real expert.

Recent Pop Journalism on Gold

I'm not sure when this whole "cube of gold" thing started or who started it. It's been surfacing noticeably for a few years now. The size of the gold cube changes from article to article. True to form, later articles depend on more secondary and tertiary sources than earlier ones, and the excretable practice of internet cut-and-paste plagiarism is certainly alive and well.

So let's talk about stacked-up cubes of gold. Here are some of the estimates of the gold cube based on the length of one side:

  • 50 feet (ibid. (1))
  • 68 feet (Warren Buffett quoted by NASDAQ(2))
  • 21 meters (World Gold Council website(3))
  • 20 meters (Warren Buffett quoted by the BBC (4))
  • 21 m (Thomson Reuters GFMS quoted by the BBC (4))
  • 67 feet (Warren Buffett quoted by Catholic Online (5))
  • 69 feet (Warren Buffett quoted by the NY Times (6))
  • 20 yards ( (7))
  • 50 meters (Gold Standard Institute quoted by the BBC (4))
  • 25 m ( (8))

If you look carefully at this list, there are only four unique gold cubes under discussion: the 50 ft cube from Dr. Staub's website, a 21 m cube from Thomas Reuters GFMS, a 50 m cube from the Gold Standard Institute (as quoted by the BBC) and the 25 m cube from How do I know this? Mostly from careful reading and because the BBC article named and discussed its sources. One of those sources, Thomas Reuters GFMS, featured prominently in the BBC article. Thomas Reuters GFMS is a reputable authority on global commodities and its reports often get attention in the business and financial press. What likely happened is that Thomas Reuters GFMS issued a commodities report which was then quoted by various news outlets and business pundits like the BBC and Warren Buffett. After that, other news outlets used the BBC and Buffett as secondary sources for crafting their own articles. From there, we can see the usual slide of sloppy internet journalism towards tertiary sources, cat-and-paste plagiarism, lazy aggregation and minimal-to-no research.

Estimates for a Gold Cube

I have no idea where Dr. Staub got his 50 ft gold cube. He didn't cite a source but given that his topic was asteroid mining and not elemental abundance, there's really no need to wax anal over this. Still, it would have been nice to know...

Sources 2,3,4, and 5 from the above list all lead back to Thomas Reuters GFMS. The BBC quoted the Thomas Reuters GFMS figure for "gold above the ground" as 171,300 metric tons (a.k.a. "tonnes"). Since the density of gold is 19300 kg/cubic-meter, it's simple to calculate the length of the cube sides as ~21 m. I would like to see the original Thomas Reuters GFMS commodities report on gold myself - but that information is not free. Those commodities reports are valued information and are sold as such. Since I can't afford something like a paid news service subscription like Thomas Reuters GFMS, I have to rely on good secondary sources like the BBC. Reliable news is not free.

It's good that respected news outlets like the BBC care about their sources but not even the BBC cites its sources in detail. This is true of all news media that either earn their money through advertising or get their funding from governments. Academic publications are really the only ones that care about listing a trail of references. This is germane since I tried to hunt down the reference to the Gold Standard Institute, finding several different organizations that call themselves by that name. Searching the websites of both the so-called international Gold Standard Institute and a Gold Standard Institute in the US, I could find nothing on how much gold there was in the world or how much had been mined to date. We know nothing about their 50 m gold cube because the source could not be traced. I suppose I could try to contact the reporter from the BBC but I think I'll be lazy and skip that since my conclusions for this blog post do not depend on the source for the 50 m gold cube. I suspect I'm an oddity in that I often track down journalistic sources when some journalist has been kind enough to cite them.

The source of the 25 m gold cube from was calculated assuming that all the gold ever produced could be approximated by mining 50 million troy ounces of gold per year for 200 years. That's not a bad way to approach the problem. The current yearly production of gold is around 50 million troy ounces, according to this website. The gold article didn't say this explicitly but modern mining methods that can completely dewater a mine are about 200 years old. Before then, mining stopped at the water table, greatly reducing the amount that could be removed from the ground compared to now. The author of this webpage is assuming that gold produced earlier than 200 years ago is small in comparison to the amounts produced since then. I wouldn't have done a gold estimate this way, but I understand the logic behind this approach. It really is a lovely back-of-the-envelope calculation.

Variations of Cube Size

It's screamingly obvious that famous rich person Warren Buffett is quoted in four times in the above list. It doesn't matter that Buffett was probably quoting Thomas Reuters GFMS. Journalists love to quote someone with celebrity status. Invoking a famous rich person as an expert will sell more news compared to dry stuffy primary sources. In the for-profit news business, deadlines, circulation and ad revenue will always trump careful writing and research. With his iconic status as a financial wizard, Buffett may look like an expert source on gold but I doubt he generated his own numbers. Like a lot of other really smart people in finance, Buffett likely consulted one or more authoritative sources on commodities for his info on gold.

It looks like Warren Buffett - as quoted in the Nasdaq article (2) - used an approximation of the Thomas Reuters GFMS figure of 171,000 metric tons, saying that:

"If all of this gold were melted together, it would form a cube of about 68 feet per side. (Picture it fitting comfortably within a baseball infield.)"

It's mildly amusing that the BBC article misquoted Warren Buffett with a 67 ft cube side and the New York Times misquoted him with a 69 ft cube side..

If you look up the density of gold (19.3 g/cc or 19300 kg/m^3), you can calculate the volume of the Thomas Reuters GFMS gold figure:

So: 171 300 tonnes x 1000 kg/tonne x 19300 kg/cubic meters = 8875 cubic meters. Taking the cube root, we get 20.70 m for a cube side. Converting from metric to neolithic units we get 20.70 m x 3.281 ft/m = 67.92 ft. If we round up, that boils down to 21 m or 68 ft. So where did the 20 m or 67 ft come from? Probably from someone writing an article on gold who got sloppy with their rounding. I'm guessing that someone used 20 m after rounding down from 21. As for 67 ft, I'm still scratching my head over that one - I'm guessing it's probably a typo.

I suspect that something similar happened with the figure of 20 yards from someone probably rounded from 21 m to 20 m and then got really sloppy, equating 20 yards with 20 meters. Now if you care about this sort of thing, one yard is only about three inches less than one meter, so yards and meters are close enough for a rough approximation; however, that difference grows when you're talking more than a couple of meters. That 20 yards is not even close to 20 meters - 20 yards is really about 18.3 meters. Numbers get a lot of abuse in the news.

One of the most annoying aspects of internet is cut-and-paste journalism which shows up a lot on news aggregation sites. For example, if you bother to look at the article on gold from Catholic Online, it's clear it was lifted the BBC article through a mix of paraphrase and non-attributed direct quotes. As a rewrite of someone else's journalism without permission or attribution, it's technically plagiarism. But cut-and-paste plagiarism is pandemic to the internet - and the costs of trying to combat the theft of one's writing is more than most writers can bear.

Gold on Earth vs. Gold Removed from the Earth

There was something I found interesting in reading all these various blogs and articles about gold. It's a tendency to conflate the amount of gold that people have removed from the Earth through mining and the total amount of gold on the planet. Here's a compilation of how various articles and blogs phrase their statements on gold:

  • Dr. Straub (1): "All of the gold ever produced on Earth would fit into a cube 50 feet on each side."
  • Warren Buffett (2): "Today the world's gold stock is about 170,000 metric tons."
  • World Gold Institute (3): "All of the gold ever mined would fit into a crate of 21 metres cubed."
  • Prior/BBC (4): "How much gold is there in the world?"
  • Prior/BBC (4): "the total amount of gold in the world - the gold above ground, that is - could fit into a cube with sides of just 20m"
  • Prior/BBC (4): "Their latest figure for all the gold in the world is 171,300 tonnes"
  • Prior/BBC (4): "The US Geological Survey estimates there are 52,000 tonnes of minable gold still in the ground"
  • Prior/BBC (4): "All the gold that has been mined throughout history is still in existence in the above-ground stock."
  • Catholic Online (5): "Their latest figure for all the gold in the world is 171,300 tons"
  • Catholic Online (5): "(One expert's) figure for the overall amount of gold in the world is 155,244 tons"
  • Catholic Online (5): "(This expert) makes only minor adjustments to the GFMS figure for the amount of gold mined since 1492"
  • Catholic Online (5): "The Gold Standard Institute believes that if the world emptied our bank vaults and jewelry boxes, we'd find no less than 2.5 million tons of gold"
  • Kitcomm misquoting Warren Buffett (9): "If you took all the gold in the world, it would roughly make a cube 67 feet on a side"
  • (7): "a specific measurement of how much gold is in the world"
  • Mankiw/New York Times (6): "if all the gold in the world were made into a cube, its edge would be only 69 feet long"

I confess that I ordered the quotes to show a progression from describing "gold produced" or "gold stocks" or "gold mined" to describing "all the gold in the world." The folks who used terms like "gold stocks" or "gold mined" got it right. The folks who used expressions like "gold mined" intermingled with expressions like "the total amount of gold in the world" were sloppy. The folks who said only things like "all the gold in the world" were just dead wrong.

All the gold ever mined is not the same thing as all the gold on Earth.

Before we proceed, let's stop and ask how do we know how much gold there is anywhere? The trivial answer is that we don't. It's the whole giant scale in Space dilemma. There's no way to make a direct measurement so we have to look elsewhere for clues to solve this problem. A lot of what we know about the amount of gold anywhere comes from relative elemental abundances measured from meteorites - and that takes us back to Dr. Straub's original statement about the amount of gold that might be in an asteroid. We're not going in circles yet, but before we do we're going to pause for now. This is the end of part one of "How Much Gold."

Part 2 will be an examination of the evidence that researchers have used to estimate that amount of gold in all kinds of places: the sun, the asteroids, the core of Earth, and other places that we can't sample directly. If you think about it, you'll realize that it's impossible to get a sample of the something like the gasses in the sun or the iron thought to be in the Earth's core. It's obvious that direct measurements based on actual physical samples have never taken place for these places and yet, you read about the size and composition of things like the sun or the core of the Earth or asteroids out in the asteroid belt all the time. When we're done, not only will we have calculated a compilation of gold amounts for all sorts of interesting places, we'll also have laid out the evidence behind those numbers so you can see a typical thought process behind the construction of scientific knowledge.


  1. Staub, W (20 May 2014), "The Money Pit Syndrome, or It's Time to Grow Up — Posted Tuesday, May 20 2014," (accessed 6 June 2014).
  2. Anon, (15 Aug 2014), "Why Warren Buffett Hates Gold," (accessed 19 June 2014).
  3. World Gold Council, "Facts About Gold," (accessed 19 June 2014).
  4. Prior, E (31 March 2013), “How much gold is there in the world?” BBC News Magazine, (accessed June 18 2014).
  5. Catholic Online, "Could the world's entire gold supply be melted into cube, 67 feet on all sides?" (accessed 20 June 2014).
  6. Mankiw, G. (27 July 2013), "Budging (Just a Little) on Investing in Gold," (accessed 20 June 2014).
  7. Anon., "How much gold is in the world?" (accessed 20 June 2014).
  8. Anon., "How much gold is there in the world?" (accessed 20 June 2014).
  9. Anon. (18 April 2013), "Thread: Top 7 Warren Buffett Quotes on Gold Investing" (accessed 20 June 2014).

Saturday 14 June 2014

They Paid Me To Write This - Part 2

They Paid Me To Write This - Part 2

Gunning Fog Index = 11.44

Did I really say in early May that I'd have part 2 on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station done in a few days? Well, once again I was wrong on the internet! Now that a month has gone by and I'm busier than ever, it's time to finish up this topic. I already have two new topics on the waiting list which I haven't tackled yet because I promised myself to finish this topic first.

In part 2, we are going to look at the last three out of seven assumptions which were detailed in part 1. Please go read part 1 now if you haven't already done so. You can find it at: .

The remaining assumptions are:

5. The 11 March 2011 Tohoku earthquake event was not really an earthquake but was actually a nuclear bomb explosion based on seismic signature evidence.

6. The nuclear bomb detonation was a covert act by the United States which took place in the deep sea fault where the Tohoku earthquake was alleged to have originated.

7. The secret nuclear bomb detonation by the USA is part of a plan by the Illuminati to destroy humanity and all other life.

California Slipping Into The Sea

So let's discuss earthquakes. Imagine you're in coastal California where the San Andreas is part of your life. The San Andreas Fault System includes the San Andreas itself and many parallel faults, all of which accommodate the northward motion of the Pacific Plate as it slides past the south-bound North American Plate. Here's a USGS figure that shows the tectonic plate motions around California:


Just give up any notions you have of California slipping into the sea – it's not going to happen, folks. What's really going on here is Los Angeles trying to move to San Francisco. It's not as crazy as it sounds. For example, there are rocks that were originally in the neighborhood of the Grapevine on I-5 that have been moved by the San Andreas Fault just north of Santa Cruz (1, 2). If you take out a ruler and measure that, you'll find a displacement of 350 km, which is around 220 miles for those of you who aren't in the habit of thinking in SI units. Mind you, at the rate that tectonic plates move, it took a while for those Grapevine-neighborhood rocks to make that commute to Sant Cruz – almost 30 million years (3).

Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Pismo Beach, Big Sur, Monterey, Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay are all sitting on the northward-moving Pacific Plate. Most (but not all) of San Francisco is on the North American Plate so all those Pacific Plate cities and their suburbs are making one really slow commute towards San Francisco and points north. Other than mudslides on California's infamous steep unstable slopes, the state is in no danger of slipping into the sea.

I believe the whole “California slipping into the sea” gig comes from a book that was quite popular in its day and is still worth a read now. The book is The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California by Curt Gentry, originally published in 1967. If you've never read it, find a copy and read it – especially if you've been brought up and lived east of the Rockies all your life. It's about three quarters California history and current events from when Reagan was Governor of California mixed in with about one quarter fictional narrative of the state slipping into the Pacific Ocean. I got handed a copy the day after when I moved to Northern California from Connecticut – and for this born-and-bred blue-blooded New Englander (complete with the requisite Colonial Puritan ancestors), it really enlightened me to all things Californian – and yes, enlightened is the word I want here. It was a well-known book in its day and it's fascinating reading.

Unlike a lot of my family, I really love California. Most of my family have fixated on things that are utter weirdnesses to a New Englander: buying bottled water, concrete-lined river beds in the Los Angeles Basin, the brown-dominated landscape of Southern California and the Californian deserts, the necessity of irrigation, western-style sprawl, Botts dots. To someone accustomed to the intense green of the northeast, with its decidious forests that grow like weeds, its copious rain, its narrow winding roads and its big wide rivers, most of California is a shock. But you can't grasp California if you don't look beyond the dry landscape and the urban sprawl. That's why I recommend Gentry's book. Though I did a master's degree at Caltech in Pasadena, I didn't really begin to grok the reality of California until I read The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California. It's an entertaining read and you'll even learn something!

Well, now that we have gotten the obligatory tangential subject out of the way, you should all know by now that California is not going to sink into the ocean.

Now in order to address assumption #5, we need to inquire whether nuclear explosions and earthquakes behave the same way. If earthquakes and nuclear explosions can be distinguished, then we can test assumption 5 quickly and easily; in order to do that, however, we need to do a little seismology lesson and that's going to take up a lot of column inches – but the result will be worth the while. So please stick with me while I cram a couple weeks of intro seismology into your brains. I won't invoke any nasty math so you should be able to follow the science even if you did bomb multi-variable calculus.

Strike and Dip

The plate tectonic motion between the Pacific and North American Plates is that of two plates sliding past each other. Geologists call this sort of motion “strike-slip.” That's a funny term, isn't it? It makes more sense if you know what strike is to a geologist. In geology, strike is the direction of the line formed by the intersection of a fault, bed, or other planar feature and a horizontal plane. Now I don't usually try to push the readership into picking up concepts that are specialist knowledge in one narrow subject, but I'm going to make an exception for strike. If you really want to understand the difference between an earthquakle and a nuclear bomb explosion, you need to wrap your brain cells around the concept of strike.

Strike is really easy if you're into alpine skiiing. A horizontal traverse on skis travels along the strike of the ski slope.


If you don't ski, then just think of strike as a direction. Any planar feature in three dimensions can be uniquely described using strike and dip – which is why strike is so popular with geology types. If you've ever noticed inclined rock beds in a road cut, then be assured those rock beds have been mapped by a geologist and strike was used in their description. Look at the following diagram:


Here are some inclined rock beds. The horizontal line is strike and the angle that the beds make with the horizontal is the dip. This system of describing planar features in space works at all scales and for all kinds of rocks and landforms. It works for the rock beds in the above diagram and for slopes like the diagram below. If you put a skier traveling along the strike line on that slope, it should be easy to see that strike here is once again the skier's horizontal traverse.


Strike-slip and Dip-slip Faults.

Please look at the diagram below:


In this figure, the earth moves in a way that pulls geological strata apart. This is extension. At some point, the stresses pulling on the rocks will exceed the rocks' ability to stretch and they will break apart. The down-dropped block is called a graben, which is a vocabulary word you will seldom find outside of geology. The only other use for the word graben that I know of is that it's the name of one of the two main drags through the center of Vienna's first district, where all the fancy stores are congregated next to Vienna's cathedral, the Stephansdom. It's not important to know what a graben is though you may get some mileage out of it if you remember it and use it at the next cocktail party you go to.

A graben is not the only form you can get from extension. Half-grabens are also common:


One can find half-grabens throughout the Rockies and the tectonically-active Basin and Range, which is the region of extension between the Wasatch Mountains in Utah and the Sierra Nevada in California. Salt Lake City is built on a half-graben formed by motions on the active Wasatch Fault.


On the above diagram of Salt Lake City, the fault plane dips to the west though the strike of the fault is a horizintal line oriented approximately north-south. Motions on the Wasatch Fault are up and down on the inclined fault plane. Since these motions occur parallel to the direction of the dip, this kind of fault is categorized as a dip-slip fault. Dip-slip faults can also form from compression, where one side of the fault overrides the other. The three types of dip-slip faults are shown below:


Not all fault motions are dip-slip. The direction of fault displacement can also be parallel to strike as seen in the following figure. It's a no-brainer that these sort of faults are categorized as strike-slip faults. The most famous of all strike-slip faults is the San Andreas.


Most fault motions are not perfectly up-and-down or horizontal; most dip-slip motions include a bit of strike-slip and most strike-slip motions include a bit of dip-slip. Faults where both dip-slip and strike-slip occur in near equal amounts are called oblique-slip faults.

Let's review what we know so far: faults are planar features where rocks on one side have moved with respect to the rocks on the other side. The motion along a fault is along strike (strike-slip) or along dip (dip-slip) or both (oblique-slip). What I've laid out here is only the bare minimum needed for this blog. The USGS has a nice s review webpage on this stuff at (accessed 12 June 2014) and American River College has good detailed webpage you can refer to at (accessed 10 June 2014).

Earthquake Ground Motions

Before we get too deep into earthquakes and their ground motion, we need to discuss P waves. Every earthquake event creates several different kinds of ground motions. For our purposes here we are going to ignore everything but the first motion recorded on seismometers. The first motion of an earthquake wave train is a longitudinal wave which is either a compression or a dilation. It's called a P wave because it's the first or primary motion you felt or recorded during a seismic event. Though it's not the most energetic part of an earthquake wavetrain, the information we get from the P wave will tell us what kind of earthquake we're dealing with as well as the orientation and location of the fault involved.

Earthquakes involve relative motions between two sides of a fault. This two-sided motion on a fault plane means we are dealing with something called a stress couple. It's useful to look at how a stress couple works along a strike-slip fault like the San Andreas.


In the above diagram, which is a map view of a strike-slip fault, the stresses on either side of the fault are equal and opposite. Let's make the top of the map north and the bottom south for the sake of convenience. Since we're looking at the ground from above in our map view, all we can see of the fault is its strike which is a line oriented approximately north-south. If the fault is locked rather than actively creeping – as discussed in part 1 of this blog post - then stress will build up on either side of the fault plane until it breaks, resulting in a sudden displacement. On the left side of the fault, the sudden motion sends a compressional wave (a push) northward and a dilational wave (a pull) southward. The motion is the opposite on the right side of the fault where a compression wave travels southward and a dilation wave travels northward. These seismic waves are technically acoustic waves, i.e. waves which compress or stretch molecules as they travel. A useful analogy is light: if these waves were light waves instead, then an observer to the south would see the left side as red shifted and the right side blue-shifted.

We can make a diagram of these opposing wave pairs by drawing a circle in map view and coloring compressions black and dilations white:


The result is a quatered circle in map view with alternating black and white quarters.

Instead of a strike-slip fault, let's look at the motion of a thrust fault. In the figure below, we're looking at a cross-section of the earth where there's a thrust fault.


The two sides of the fault are being pushed together such that the rocks on the left are being thrust on top of the rocks on the right. When an earthquake occurs, the overthrust rocks on top of the fault are compressed since we're squeezing them after all. Once again, the rocks that see a compressional wave are colored black and the rocks that see a dilation are colored white. If we superimpose a circle around the fault, we see a similar pattern of black and white quarters like the ones we saw for the strike-slip fault. Now the quartered-circle diagram for the strike-slip fault was a map view of the fault but here we see the quartered circle in a cross-sectional view for the thrust fault. What's important is that both these views are perpendicular to the plane of the fault. No matter how the fault plane is oriented in the ground, if you look at a fault perpendicular to the fault plane, you will always see this pattern of a quartered black-and-white circle of compression and dilation from an earthquake.

Here's the sticking point: earthquake motions are recorded at the earth's surface, which may or may not be perpendicular to the fault plane with its nice stress-couple quartered pattern of compressions and dilations. What we actually measure in the real world is the response of seismometers on the ground during an earthquake. So we need to know what the pattern of compression and dilation looks like on the ground in map view for different fault types. That's not hard to do. In the thrust fault figure, I've indicated in the cross-sectional view where compression and dilation occur at the earth's surface. In the bottom half of the figure, I have plotted the areas of compress and dilation using an overhead map-view circular diagram similar to one for strike-slip faults.

This next figure, below, shows the same thing, except this time we're looking at a “normal” fault, not a thrust fault.


A normal fault is the kind of fault you get when you're pulling the ground apart in extension. Why these aren't called extension faults is a mystery. I've been doing geology professionally for most of my life and I have never quite figured out why extensional faults are called normal faults. Go figure.

Regardless, for an earthquake caused by extensional stress, you again get a quartered circle in the cross-sectional view - which is the view perpendicular to the fault plane – except the quarters switch places so dilation is on top. In the beach ball-like overhead-view circle diagram, the colors flip again showing that the ground immediately above the earthquake is in dilation - which is what you'd expect when you pull things apart.

The take-home nugget here is that regardless of the orientation of a fault, the paired compressions and dilations of earthquake motions are the signature of a stress couple. This seismic signature is important for dealing with assumption #5, which will become apparent as soon as we tackle the seismic behavior of explosions.

If you followed all of that, then you now know more than most people on the planet about earthquakes and how scientists plot and display them.

Beach Ball Plots

Here's a nice summary figure from the USGS on beach ball plots and how they relate to earthquakes on the different types of faults we discussed. I should mention that structural geologists do make a distinction between thrust faults which have shallow-dipping fault planes and reverse faults which are thrust faults with steeply-dipping fault planes. But I'm a lazy borehole geophysicist and volcanic stratigrapher and I tend to get a little sloppy about such terminology.


Now that every one reading my blog is an expert on reading seismic beach ball plots, here are some real world examples:


The figure above is a map of the California central coast and the Bay Area to the north. Other than the coastline, the black lines on the map are the San Andreas plus its splays and other major strike-slip faults in the San Andreas Fault System. While the San Andreas if the biggest baddest strike-slip fault in this hemisphere, it doesn't take all of the motion between the North America and Pacific plates. The subsidiary faults in the San Andreas system include the Hayward Fault, the Calaveras Fault, the Elsinore and San Jacinto Faults down by Los Angeles, and the Walker Lane-East California seismic zone just to name the major faults. There are many other smaller parallel faults in the San Andreas Fault System which would take up too much space if I listed them all. The point is that while the San Andreas Fault is the actual plate boundary, the motion between the plates is spread across a region that is actually tens of kilometers wide.

You should notice that most of the beach ball plots of past earthquakes in California show that distinctive quartered-circle pattern associated with strike-slip motion. This is not surprise since the San Andreas and subsidiary faults are strike-slip faults. In addition, I can spot 7 earthquake focal mechanisms which a compressional signature and 2 with extensional signatures. Since there are compressional ridges and mountains plus some pull-apart basins along the San Andreas and related faults, seeing some compressional and extensional events is not at all strange.

Now before we embark on a discussion of the Tohoku-Oki earthquake, I'm going to pause briefly to point out that any earthquake magnitude you read about in the news in NOT measured on the Richter Scale. The Richter Scale is obsolete and hasn't been used for decades. The problem is that journalists and the general public aren't aware of this. I've written a blog post on this very subject since it's a pet peeve of mine, which you can peruse if you want at

Now let's look at the focal mechanism for the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake that was responsible for the tsunami which flooded the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The Japan Meteorological Agency, which publishes all of Japan's official earthquake info, described the earthquake as a “Reverse fault type with WNW-ESE compressional axis,” which was sited at 38° 6.2′ N, 142° 51.6′ E 130 km offshore at a depth of 24 km with a magnitude of 9.0 on the Mw scale (4). The USGS placed the Tohoku-Oki earthquake at 38.308° N, 142.383° E, with a magnitude 9.0 on the Mw scale (5), at a depth of 30 km (6). Here's a look at the USGS focal mechanism solution from (5):

11/03/11 05:46:23.82
Epicenter: 38.308 142.383
MW 9.0

11/03/11 05:47:47.20

Principal axes:
T Val= 4.57 Plg=58 Azm=306
N -0.05 5 208
P -4.52 32 115

Best Double Couple:Mo=4.5*10**22

NP1:Strike= 29 Dip=77 Slip=  95
NP2: 187 14 68


The USGS calculated that:

“the fault moved upwards of 30-40 m, and slipped over an area approximately 300 km long (along-strike) by 150 km wide (in the down-dip direction). The rupture zone is roughly centered on the earthquake epicenter along-strike, while peak slips were up-dip of the hypocenter, towards the Japan Trench axis (7)."

One group of researchers (8) calculated that the timing and propagation of the fault motion took approximately 100 seconds from start to finish, which if you know anything about earthquakes is an amazing number, a lot longer than your usual garden-variety California magnitude 7. The 1989 7.0 Mw Loma Prieta earthquake took 7 seconds as did the 1994 6.7 Mw Northridge earthquake; the 1983 7.0 Mw Borah Peak earthquake lasted 9 second and the 1992 7.3 Mw Landers earthquake took a long 24 seconds (9).

I need to be honest here and admit to a little slight-of-hand since if you look up duration for the handful of other really absurdly huge earthquakes, like the 1960 Chile earthquake, you'll find the magnitude 9 earthquakes can last more than 100 seconds. Regardless, the duration of the rare magnitude 9+ events puts your everyday ho-hum California magnitude 7 quake to shame. One hundred seconds for the Tohoku-Oki event is still a mega-big number for an earthquake. The Japan Meteorological Agency says that it is the largest earthquake recorded in Japan ever (4).

The Energy of the Tohoku-Oki Earthquake

We can calculate the seismic moment Mo, i.e. the work done by an earthquake (in Joules), using the seismic moment equation (10):

Mo = µAD , where µ is the shear modulus in Pascals, A is the area in square meters of the fault plane that slipped, and D is the the slip amount in meters.

How much energy is a Joule? A lit 100 watt light bulb uses 100 joules of energy per second. A 1000 watt microwave uses 1000 joules per second to reheat your leftovers. Picking an orange off the floor and putting it on an adjacent table is approximately 1 joule of work. One joule is not very much. What's a lot of energy in joules? Your average bolt of lightning carries approximately 5 billion joules of electricity - that's a lot energy!

To calculate how much energy was expended by the Tohoku-Oki earthquake, we will use the seismic moment equation. We will use 3 giga-pascals for the shear modulus of rocks in the deep crust, 300 km by 150 km for the area (after converting to square meters) and 30 m for the displacement. After we plug in the numbers and crunch, we get:

Mo = 4.050 E+22 Joules

If you're not familiar or comfortable with scientific notation of large numbers, we can write the quantity out as:

Mo = 40 500 000 000 000 000 000 000 Joules. Now that's a lot of energy! If we expressed this energy in units of lightning bolts, the energy expended by the Tohoku-Oki earthquake is approximately equal to 8 trillion lightning strikes.

Just to double check our numbers, the relationship between seismic moment Mo and the Mw magnitude scale is:

Mw= 2/3 log(Mo) – 10.7

Unfortunately, the above Mw equation is in ergs, not Joules; however, the conversion between Joules and ergs is easy since 1 joule is 1E+07 ergs, so 4.050E+22 Joules is 4.050E+29 ergs. Now we can plug and crunch and the answer is:

Mw = 9.03 - so now we know that the USGS seismologists in ref #7 did their calculations correctly!

The Behavior of Explosions, Nuclear or Otherwise

In terms of stress, explosions are rather simple beasts, much simpler than the double couples of earthquakes with their paired lobes of compression and dilation in three dimensions. The thing that characterizes explosions is the uniform rapid expansion of a material, either through chemical conversion, phase conversion or through combustion or some combination thereof. You don't necessarily have to have heat involved to have an explosion, but thanks to Hollywood, most people have the sight of great burning balls of expanding gases stuck in their heads as the epitome of things that go boom.

Forget all those dramatic fireballs. It's the sudden expansion of material that makes an explosion. Now if you've ever watched aerial fireworks, which are nothing more than cosmetically-pretty explosions at altitude, it should be no surprise to you that exploding materials expand in all directions simultaneously. You've seen this happen every time fireworks go off. If no significant external forces act on the exploding material, then the expansion is a perfect spherical wavefront of compression. Here's a YouTube link to a really wonderful short video where you can see the spherical shock wave of an explosion:

As someone who used to sneak off into the woods after high school let out and blow stuff up, I find videos like this are salve to my nerdly soul! Now the video you just watched only shows the upper half a compression sphere because we can't see the compression wave travel in the ground. To get a feel for an unimpeded spherical wavefront from an explosion, here's a short video clip of several upper atmosphere nuclear explosions at altitudes greater than 80 km:

It doesn't matter if an explosion happens surrounded by water, air, the vacuum of space or deep in the ground: so long as the explosion is surrounded by a uniform material, fluid or solid, the first energy felt and recorded will be a compression that expands in all directions equally as a spherical waveform. Now, if you bury a bomb in the earth and then surround that bomb by seismometers, every seismometer will record a positive P wave as the spherical compression wavefront travels past. There are several different things that distinguish explosions from earthquakes, like the rapid decay of energy and much higher frequency content, but the initial arrival of that positive P wave (i.e., a compression) expanding out in all directions is the biggie. If you used a “beachball” diagram to record compressions and dilations associated with an explosion, the “beach ball” would be completely black. Why? Because every first arrival of the expanding compression wave would be positive. That's the most distinctive seismic signature of any explosion.

During my short time at the Seismology Lab at Caltech many decades ago, there was a set of old fashioned seismograph drums in the hallway outside the instrument rooms where all the telemetered data was recorded for the Southern California Seismic Network. They were a popular spot to linger because one could hang out and watch earthquakes as they happened in real time. Everyone always knew when there was an underground test of a nuclear bomb at the Nevada Test Site because every first arrival P-wave arrival on the seismograph drums was positive no matter where the receiving seismic station was located. The same principal applied for quarry blasts out at a quarry south of Riverside in San Bernadino County, except the explosions were much smaller so the positive P waves only showed up on a handful of seismic stations.

By now, I expect folks have already figured out that assumption #5 is false because the seismic signature recorded for the Tohoku-Oki earthquake has the stress couple signature for a thrusting event on a beach ball plot. If a nuclear bomb blast was being mistaken for as an earthquake, then the beach ball plots would be uniformly black because every first arrival P wave on all the seismometers would be positive due to expanding compressive wavefront in all directions. An experienced interpreter of seismic waveforms would likely recognize some of the other telltale signs of an explosion like the higher frequency content and the rapid decay of seismic energy. Compared to explosions, nuclear or otherwise, earthquakes - especially big ones - have some distinctive and well-known low frequency waves like the 20-second surface waves. Earthquake wavetrains do not quickly decay like explosions do; instead, the waves that follow the first arrival P wave are much larger and much higher in energy compared to the first-arrival P waves.

The Energy Released by Nuclear Bombs

One can make a good case that the Tohoku-Oki earthquake was a true fault displacement event on a deep thrust fault based on the pattern of paired compressions and dilations recorded worldwide; however, there is another line of evidence in support of earthquake activity based on the energy released of this magnitude 9.0 event. We've already dicussed how much energy was involved in the Tohoku-Oki earthquake based on the energy expended to move a 300 by 150 km area of a fault plane in a thrusting motion of 30 m displacement, i.e. 4.050 E+22 Joules, or if you prefer, 8 trilion lightning strikes. The question we need to look at now is how this earthquake energy compares to the explosive force of nuclear bombs.

The bible in the English language on nuclear bombs effects is The Effects of Nuclear Weapons by Glasstone and Dolan (11); and the conversion for joules to nuclear yield found therein is 1 kiloton yield equals 4.18 E+12 Joules. The largest nuclear bomb design ever built was the Soviet 100 megaton “Tsar Bomba” which was tested in 1961 using a down-graded lead tamper tertiary stage to limit the yield to 50 magatons (12). Even the reduced-yield version of the Tsar Bomba design had measurable physical effects as far as 1000 km away. A 50 megaton nuclear bomb is 50000 times larger than 1 kiloton, so the energy release of such a weapon would be 50000 x 4.18 E+12 Joules = 2.09E+17 Joules. This is a far cry from the seismic moment of 4.05E+22 Joules for the Tohoku-Oki Earthquake. In fact, if we plug the nuclear yield energy into the moment magnitude equation, the result is Mw = 5.5. Now a 5.5 magnitude earthquake is not exactly trivial and can do a great deal of damage to houses, masonry, dishes and bookshelves not bolted to house frames – but it's no Tohoku-Oki with its near 30000 death toll and entire towns being swept away.

The bottom line here is that no known nuclear weapon can match the huge energy release of the Tohoku-Oki earthquake, making this a second line of evidence that the nuclear bomb allegation of assumption #5 is false.

Planting Nuclear Bombs in Faults

Assumption #6 is that the alleged nuclear bomb from assumption #5 was planted in the “deep sea fault” associated with the Tohoku-Oki earthquake. This is very easy to disprove. The deepest boreholes to date are the Soviet Kola corehole project drilled in 1994 to a measured depth of 12262 m (13); the Qatar Al Shaheen oil well drilled in 2008 to a measured depth of 12289 m; and the Exxon Neftegas Sakhalin-I offshore oil well in the Okhotsk Sea, drilled in 2011 to a measured depth of 12345 m (14). There seems to be a depth limit for boreholes which varies between ~9000 m and the current maximum depth of 12345 m. This limit is imposed by borehole temperatures and current drill bit technology because drill bits will perform poorly at temperatures over 250° C and will fail to cut at temperatures in excess of 300° C.

Given the current state-of-the-art for drill bits, it's safe to say that ~12 km is the practical limit for drilling depth. There is no drill rig on Earth right now that can reach the published depths of 24 to 30 km for the Tohoku-Oki earthquake. Assumption #6 is false because drilling a hole 24 km deep is currently impossible.

Illuminati Plot to End All Life on Earth

Assumption #7 alleges that a USA nuke placed in the Tohoku-Oki earthquake fault is part of a plot by the Illuminati to destroy life on Earth as we know it. This allegation can be refuted on the grounds of self-interest. Destroying life on Earth would also destroy the Illuminati themselves and no one in their right mind would do that. Evil masterminds plot to take over the world, not destroy it, though frankly it's even doubtful that the Illuminati really exist.

Of course it is possible that the Illuminati paid me to write this as a smoke screen to conceal their evil plans. In such a case, it would be part of my strategy to obscure all Illuminati goals with this reasonable-looking blog post. You'll just have to believe me when I assert that there is no Illumnati plot behind the Tohoku-Oki earthquake. The sudden increase in my bank balance is really from seling off some excess property for the business that I own and manage. The Illuminati have nothing to do with the sudden infusion of money into my checking account. You believe me, right?

Parting Shots About Tsunami Size

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station had a protective berm around reactor units 1 through 4 to prevent flooding by ocean surges. The Tsunami height on 11 March 2011 at Fukushima was 14 m which flowed over the 10 m berm to swamp all the emergency diesel generators.

It's known that the Mw 8.6 earthquake of March 2, 1933 produced tsunami waves along the coast of Japan that were as high as 29 m. In light of the known and documented 1933 tsunami height of 29 m, what kind of funny green tobacco were the TEPCO facility designers smoking when they used a berm height of just 10 m? Somebody blew it big time when designing that inadequate berm.


All websites were accessed on 10 June 2014 unless stated otherwise.

  1. Dibblee, T. W., Jr. (1966), Evidence for cumulative offset on the San Andreas fault in central and northern California, in Bailey, E. H., Ed.:Geology of northern California, California Div of Mines and Geol. Bull. 190, p. 375-384.
  2. Hill, M. L., and Dibblee, T. W., Jr. (1953), San Andreas, Garlock, and Big Pine fualts, California – A study of the character, history, and tectonic significance of their displacements: Geol. Soc of Am. Bull., v. 64, p. 443-458.
  3. Atwater, Tanya, 1970, Implications of plate tectonics for the Cenozoic tectonic evolution of western North America. Bull. Geol. Soc. Amer., v. 81, p. 3513-3536.
  4. Japan Meteorological Agency, /2011_Earthquake/Information_on_2011_Earthquake.html
  5. U.S. Geological Survey, /eqinthenews/2011/usc0001xgp/neic_c0001xgp_cmt.php
  6. U.S. Geological Survey, /eqinthenews/2011/usc0001xgp/#details
  7. U.S. Geological Survey, /eqinthenews/2011/usc0001xgp/#summary
  8. Ide, S., Baltay, A., and Beroza, G. C. (17 June 2011), Shallow Dynamic Overshoot and Energetic Deep Rupture in the 2011 Mw 9.0 Tohoku-Oki Earthquake. Science 17 : 332 (6036), p. 1426-1429. Also published online pn 19 May 2011: DOI:10.1126/science.1207020
  9. Earthquake Country,
  10. U.S. Geological Survey,
  11. Glasstone, S., and Dolan, P. eds., The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, 3rd ed. U.S. Department of Defense & U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration, 1977, Table 1.45, p. 13.
  12. Sublette, C. (2007), Nuclear Weapon Archive: Tsar Bomba,, accessed 11 June 2014.
  13. International Continental Drilling Project,
  14. Wikipedia,

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Herodotus and the Etruscan DNA

Today's installment of someone being wrong on the internet is the consequence of watching classic silent movies three evenings ago. I couldn't help but notice the really beautiful lorica segmata worn by the rank and file Roman soldiers in the MGM 1926 silent film version of Ben Hur. On the viewing agenda, Ben Hur was followed by the 1914 Italian silent classic Cabiria. Being one of those people who notices the sins of Hollywood, as one might put it, when it comes to accuracy in historical costuming, it did not escape my notice that the armor in this earlier film didn't match the quality in Ben Hur. The Roman armor looked to me to be later in style than the second Punic War, the conflict around which the plot of the movie revolves. Now, not being up on my armor for Carthaginian armies, I started looking stuff up on the internet for descriptions of the armor worn by Carthaginian and Numidian armies at the time of the second and third Punic Wars.

One website I landed on was a blog at, which as far as I can tell has its ownership hidden from all whois and other DNS type searches. I find this suspicious since the layout and art on this “blog” are eye candy to make renowned military artist Angus McBride weep - that's how good the production values are on this website. Most of the illustrations look like they walked right off the pages of an Osprey book. In fact, I have already identified several illustrations on this site with ones in Osprey Books. After looking carefully at the site and searching for any ownership or attribution info, it appears that many of the articles on this blog have been “reblogged” from other sites. In other words, the contents seem to be “borrowed” from other military history sites, though direct attribution is copious missing and the only attributions on the “reblogging” that I can find is hiding deep down on the right hand column after scrolling down many many many feet. I could have said inches but using “feet” here instead is actually not an exaggeration – no kidding!

Since it is a site with a commercial sponsor in Australia, and since it has prominent links to several websites like Osprey and several wargaming companies, it's possible that there is some behind-the-scenes arrangement between this “blog” and these companies. Regardless, it's still a site conspicuous for its lack of attribution. It's quite scary. The site seems to claim that it's been around since 2005 which makes me really wonder. Something doesn't compute here for me. All the text is well written and the art is lovely. It really is eye candy. It's a website that is begging to be read. I certainly spent a while roaming around on it.

I sorted out all the “blog posts” indexed as “Roman” ( , accessed 21 Dec 2013) and browsed through them looking for stuff on the Punic Wars. On my way through the material, I noticed the following post from November 6, 2013 titled Early Etruscan-Roman Wars ( , accessed 21 Dec 2013) posted by one Mitch Williamson. This is even more disturbing since I have identified that the text of this article is actually out of a book called the Dictionary of Wars, 3rd Edition, edited by one George C. Kohn, published by Facts On File Inc. of New York City, c. 2007. There's a list of 9 contributing writers to the Dictionary of Wars. Mitch Williamson isn't one of them. The text in the blog article and the Dictionary of Wars are an exact match. There is no acknowledgment whatsoever of where the text came from.

Regardless of attribution problems, someone was wrong on the internet. The beginning of the Etruscan blog post, which is the same as part of the entry on Etruscan wars in the Dictionary of Wars, is where the mistake lies. It's a mistake as old as Herodotus. Well, to be frank, it's debatable if there is a mistake per se. It's one of things that's not a settled matter, as I will attempt to explain. It's an item that's still the subject of active modern debate.

Okay – here's the text from the blog and the Dictionary of Wars:

About 800 B.C.E., migrants from Anatolia (Turkey) brought to Italy the high culture of the Bronze and Iron ages. Named Tyrrhenoi by the Greeks (whence, Tyrrhenian) and Tusci by the Latins (whence, Tuscany), they called themselves the Rasenna. We know them as the Etruscans.

Yep, the above text is today's example of being wrong on the internet. It's a lovely little story but its veracity is in doubt, but for reasons that you probably don't expect, which strangely enough have everything to do with the scientific method and creation of scientific consensus. But our starting point is in the middle of the first millenium B.C.

As far as anyone can tell, the first person to claim a tie between Anatolia and Etruria was Herodotus. Herodotus's connection was seconded by Vergil a few hundred years later. This account is at variance with somewhat confused connections between the Etruscans, the Attic Pelasgians and the island of Lemnos mentioned by Thucydides, his contemporary Hellenikos, and Sophocles. To add to the confusion, the first century B.C. Dionysus of Halicarnassus, who specifically disagreed with both Herodotus's and Thucydides's claims; instead he argued that the Etruscans were an autochtonous people. As we look as these accounts from classical antiquity, keep in mind that the Greek name for the Etruscans was the Tyrrhenians, give or take a letter here and there for minor variations of time and place.

The story starts with Herodotus in one of those tangential asides that pepper his Histories. The tangent in question is about a famine in the country of Lydia and how that led to the migration of the Etruscans. Lydia was the name of a country in east central Anatolia. In the early first millenium B.C., before the rise of Athens, Sparta, Macedonia, or Rome as powers, there were a number of small kingdoms like Lydia which were eventually gobbled up by the formation of Cyrus's Persia.

Here's Herodotus's account (Histories 1:84) which I swiped from the excellent Perseus website of classical sources at Tufts University:

The customs of the Lydians are like those of the Greeks, except that they make prostitutes of their female children. They were the first men whom we know who coined and used gold and silver currency; and they were the first to sell by retail. And, according to what they themselves say, the games now in use among them and the Greeks were invented by the Lydians: these, they say, were invented among them at the time when they colonized Tyrrhenia. This is their story: In the reign of Atys the son of Manes their king there came to be a grievous dearth over the whole of Lydia; and the Lydians for a time continued to endure it, but afterwards, as it did not cease, they sought for remedies; and one devised one thing and another of them devised another thing. And then were discovered, they say, the ways of playing with the dice and the knucklebones and the ball, and all the other games excepting draughts (for the discovery of this last is not claimed by the Lydians). These games they invented as a resource against the famine, and thus they used to do:--on one of the days they would play games all the time in order that they might not feel the want of food, and on the next they ceased from their games and had food: and thus they went on for eighteen years. As however the evil did not slacken but pressed upon them ever more and more, therefore their king divided the whole Lydian people into two parts, and he appointed by lot one part to remain and the other to go forth from the land; and the king appointed himself to be over that one of the parts which had the lot to stay in the land, and his son to be over that which was departing; and the name of his son was Tyrsenos. So the one party of them, having obtained the lot to go forth from the land, went down to the sea at Smyrna and built ships for themselves, wherein they placed all the movable goods which they had and sailed away to seek for means of living and a land to dwell in; until after passing by many nations they came at last to the land of the Ombricans, and there they founded cities and dwell up to the present time: and changing their name they were called after the king's son who led them out from home, not Lydians but Tyrsenians, taking the name from him. (ref: , accessed 22 Dec 2013)

Yep, that's Herodotus for you. Not only is he accounted as the first historian, a claim probably makes Thucydides roll in his grave (see , accessed Dec 24 2013), he is also one of the first exemplars of rambling unfocused prose and the father of all tangential asides. Now compare Herodotus with Thucydides's take on the Etruscans (Peloponnesian War 4:109), again swiped from the Perseus site at Tufts:

In the same winter the Megarians recovered their Long Walls which had been in the hands of the Athenians and razed them to the ground. After the taking of Amphipolis, Brasidas and his allies marched to the so-called Actè, or coastland, which runs out from the canal made by the Persian King and extend into the peninsula; it ends in Athos, a high mountain projecting into the Aegean sea. There are cities in the peninsula, of which one is Sanè, an Andrian colony on the edge of the canal looking towards the sea in the direction of Euboea; the others are Thyssus, Cleonae, Acrothoi, Olophyxus, and Dium; their inhabitants are a mixed multitude of barbarians, speaking Greek as well as their native tongue. A few indeed are Chalcidian; but the greater part are Pelasgians (sprung from the Tyrrhenians who once inhabited Lemnos and Athens), or Bisaltians, Crestonians, Edonians. They all dwell in small cities. Most of them joined Brasidas, but Sane and Dium held out; whereupon he remained there for a time and wasted their territory. (ref: , accessed 23 Dec 2013)

The above accounts should be compared to their critique by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in his Roman Antiquities, which I swiped from Bill Thayer's eclectic but still marvelous Lacus Curtius website of primary and secondary classical sources, once hosted at classics department at the University of Kansas, but now hosted by the University of Chicago:

I am persuaded that the Pelasgians are a different people from the Tyrrhenians. And I do not believe, either, that the Tyrrhenians were a colony of the Lydians; for they do not use the same language as the latter, nor can it be alleged that, though they no longer speak a similar tongue, they still retain some other indications of their mother country. For they neither worship the same gods as the Lydians nor make use of similar laws or institutions, but in these very respects they differ more from the Lydians than from the Pelasgians. Indeed, those probably come nearest to the truth who declare that the nation migrated from nowhere else, but was native to the country, since it is found to be a very ancient nation and to agree with no other either in its language or in its manner of living. And there is no reason why the Greeks should not have called them by this name, both from their living in towers and from the name of one of their rulers. The Romans, however, give them other names: from the country they once inhabited, named Etruria, they call them Etruscans, and from their knowledge of the ceremonies relating to divine worship, in which they excel others, they now call them, rather inaccurately, Tusci, but formerly, with the same accuracy as the Greeks, they called them Thyoscoï. Their own name for themselves, however, is the same as that of one of their leaders, Rasenna. (ref:*.html, accessed 22 Dec 2013)

As you can see, Dionysius of Halicarnassus ripped the theories of both Herodotus and Thucydides as to the origins of the Etruscans, a.k.a. the Tyrrhenians, preferring instead to argue that the Etruscans were autochthonous based on the dissimilarity of their language and culture to any other he knew of.

I find it rather amusing that the great authorities of classical antiquity could find no grounds for agreement as far as the Etruscan were concerned. Regarding the passage from the Dictionary of Wars vis a vis the disturbing “blog,” when one takes a look around the internet for evidence of a modern consensus or body of arguments on this matter, a superficial look at any given internet search seems to favor an Anatolian origin for the Etruscans on the basis of recent ethnogenetic research. For example, a Google search on the words “Etruscan origin” turned up the following top level picks, listed here in order with my personal evaluation of each link:


Etruscan origins - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia -

A very brief and not comprehensive review of origin theories which appears to be balanced – though leaning toward the Anatolian origin theory early on - until you get to the last section, which is on genetic research citing three academic journal articles from 2004 and 2007 arguing for a genetic tie between Tuscany and Anatolia. The stacking of these journal articles in the very last section of the Wikipedia entry leaves an impression that the Anatolian origin theory has a basis supported by newly-published research. The existence of other recent research that argues against the Anatolia origin theory is not mentioned at all.

Etruscan civilization - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia -

Contains a brief and balanced outline of various origin theories without favoring any.

Origins of the Etruscans - San Jose State University -

A somewhat rambling account of various origin theories which ambles around to a favorable presentation of the Anatolian origin theory through mentioning – not properly citing – the two 2007 genetics papers already cited in the Wikipedia origins article. I support my admittedly snarking stance on the failure to properly cite on the basis that the author of this web page is a faculty member at San Jose State with a Ph.D. in economics. Though history is not his field, with his credentials as a university professor he has no excuse for putting such a poor example of citation practice up on the web. Though I admit this is personal opinion, and while I myself don't always follow strict formal form for my own citations on this website, I have to note that one of the mentions of the 2007 genetics articles on this webpage would have been difficult to find if I did not already have a full citation that I found beforehand through PubMed ( , one of the foremost bibliographic aggregator sites for research on the organic chemistry/biology/medical side of science); at least I follow the rule that any citation must easily lead to source cited, however sloppy with formal citation I may be. I also note that this webpage does cite one source, The Etruscans (Penguin, 1956) by the famous 20th century Italian classicist and archeologist, Massimo Pallottino, a work that leaned strongly toward an autochthonous origin for the Etruscans. (Pallottino was a great Scholar, capital S intended; read his obituary in New York Times:

Origins of the Etruscans: Was Herodotus right? - The New York Times -

This is a 2007 New York Times article that mentions three of the four aforementioned genetics articles. While it does a good job of outlining the general lie of the land for Etruscan origin theories to date, including some cogent scientific criticism of one of the genetics articles, it leans toward favoring the Anatolian origin theory.

The History of Etruria - The Mysterious Etruscans -‎

Presenting a balanced review of origins theories, this is an impressive and well-done site, which appears to be maintained by one Jim Penny who has an Australian domain email address. Whoever Jim Penny may be, his website on Etruria, including a page on Etruscan history with an extensive origins section, is comprehensive and full of mentions of both classical sources and notable Etruscan scholarship; however, the history and origins page lacks any direct citations to the sources and scholars mentioned, which is maddening given how well-written it is. There is a bibliography page for the site ( ) which lists several reputable secondary sources on the Etruscans as well as a list of web links with comments on the websites listed; though it appears there are no references with dates later than 2001, so the site and its content might be slightly dated. Regardless, this is a very impressive site in my opinion, enough so that I bookmarked it for later pleasurable internet grazing.

Who Were the Etruscans? - Ancient / Classical History – Recent work on DNA in cattle suggests Herodotus may have been right -

A favorable take on the Anatolian origin theory.

Dienekes' Anthropology Blog: Etruscan mtDNA origins (Ghirotto et al. 2013) – : Feb 8, 2013 - So, it would seem that the inferred dates are incompatible with a folk migration model of Etruscan origins...

This blog post is a brain buster. To put it in a teacup, the blog discusses a recent 2013 genetics paper on Etruscan origins, which presents some new DNA analysis and argues that based on both results and examination of previous studies, the research of the the past decade does not support that the Etruscans had an Anatolian origin as young as the first or second millenium B.C., as suggested by Herodotus; but that a Anatolian origin greater than 5000 years ago can't be disproved given the current opus of published data.

The enigma of Italy's ancient Etruscans is finally unravelled -

This is a 2007 article on the website for the Guardian News and Media Ltd., a UK media outlet favoring the Anatolian, possibly Trojan(!), origin for the Etruscans, based on the aforementioned four 2007 genetics articles plus one previously unmentioned 2004 genetics journal article.

Latin Alphabet and Etruscans of Turkic Origin !!! - 700 BC – YouTube -

Someone's You Tube “video” (it's really a slide show with music) about how everything Etruscan, Roman, Greek, and all European derivatives since are all the invention of Kazakhstan Turks, and that Western historians are complicit in a conspiracy to hide this from the world! Here's a direct quote: “All the inventions of Turkic Etruscans are today owned by Europeans: Greco-Roman wrestling, the emancipation of women, democracy, architecture, (the) alphabet, horse breeding, metallurgy, craftsmanship, supply of water..., data processing system (sic).” My opinion on this rather entertaining offering is that it is a marvel of pseudo-scientific pseudo-history, complete with emotional appeal, conspiracy theory and subjective validation. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to do one's own critical analysis for why this is so. A decent basic primer on the earmarks of pseudo-science and other pseudo-research can be found at (accessed 23 Dec 2013).

- - - END OF LIST - - -

To sum up the results of this example of an internet search on the origins of the Etruscans, out of the eight sites served up by Google there were five sites accessible to the non-specialist public favoring genetic links between Anatolia and Etruria, two sites accessible to the non-specialist public presenting a balanced presentation of several different Etruscan origin theories, one site presenting a nuanced rejection of an Anatolian origin for the Etruscans prior to 5000 years ago but not accessible to a non-specialist academic audience, and one site offering a You Tube pseudo-science-style presentation that the Etruscans were not only the cornerstone founding culture behind all subsequent European advancements, but they were actually Turks originating from Kazakhstan.

There are days my flabber gets gasted. The You Tube offering succeeded in doing so.

I will also note that every time I do a search on the two words “Etruscan origins” I get slightly different results off of Google, especially with changes in capitalization and plural vs. singular – it's really quite interesting watching the results change from search to search with small word variations and also with time. Try your own google searches on Etruscan origins and see what results you get and how they might vary from search to search.

But back to my search. I find it quite disturbing that two media outlets, namely the often tawdry Guardian as well as the presumably gold-standard New York Times, both highlighted recent genetic research as favoring an Anatolian origin for the Etruscans despite the existence of reputable research disputing such an origin as well as the established arguments against such a tie on both linguistic and cultural grounds. These two articles from the internet search are examples of how modern media outlets can do demonstrable harm to both the public perception of academic findings and to the public perception of the progression of scientific knowledge. By reporting such research as the latest and greatest, ignoring an existing consensus to the contrary, and without any realization that peer review and research still-in-progress can and will modify the results of any research finding, such reporting adds to the lack of public understanding of how the work of modern science progresses. Such reporting adds to the growing lack of public respect for science and other academic endeavors overall. Reporters treat papers like the 2007 genetics papers as NEWS, the LATEST and GREATEST, the NEW REVOLUTIONARY results that will REMAKE EVERYTHING we know FOR ALL TIME!!! The reporting of science usually gets packaged as the presentation of new FACTS – therein lies the rub. A result from a newly published paper may or may not be a new fact. It's really just a new result which may or may not be flawed by a goof in experimental set-up, a mistake made but not yet caught in instrumentation or procedure, a faulty assumption made in analysis, or any number of things that might call that result into question. Scientific publications are littered with the remains of published results that didn't make the cut, even when the result was right and the consensus was initially wrong. The evolution of scientific consensus can sometimes take decades, which is hardly newsworthy.

Until a result has been through the slow mill of scientific consensus, the world of science treats it as just a result to be tested, examined, discussed and argued over. A result from a new paper is really only just a data point in the evolution of scientific consensus. The process of creating that consensus – a nuanced construct that's the product of many researchers usually taking years - is completely invisible to the world of news reporting. To the world of reporting - with its attention span of a toddler - the long slow grind of scientific consensus is seldom news and when it is, it is usually due to getting something important terribly wrong, like the reaction of the scientific community to Wegener's theory of continental drift (, accessed 23 Dec 2013).

But enough with lamenting the state of science reporting in modern media. Let's get back to the Etruscans and their supposed origins in Anatolia. Now when I started writing this blog post, I originally envisioned making my point that the “blog” and the Dictionary of Wars got it all wrong through a list of journal articles on the subject of Etruscan-related genetics, based on searches I did through online science publication indices on the American Association for the Advancement of Science and PubMed websites. The list, as I initially planned, would include papers both for and against DNA-based Anatolian origins for the Etruscans. Life may have proceeded as planned if I had decided to skip the classical origins of the Etruscan origins debate; but the digression on news media articles invoking the validation of Herodotus by modern genetics seemed somehow incomplete without a review of the classical debate - and then one thing led to another. Also, without those classical sources, the parallels between them and the modern debates on Etruscan origins would lose their poignancy. After all, wandering around a topic is one of the prerogatives of having one's own blog. Herodotus would be proud!

And to fill out some of that wandering, it is interesting, at least to me, that there appear to be parallels between the stances of Herodotus, Thucydides and Dionysius of Halacarnassus on the origins of the Etruscans and the various results of modern scholarship on the matter. Paralleling the arguments of Dionysus of Halicarnassus, much of the research on the Etruscans in the 20th century has been linguistic. A consensus appeared rather early on that there were no connections whatsoever between Etruscan and the Indo-European Lydian language of classical antiquity, which sinks at least Herodotus (, accessed 22 Dec 2013). The problem here is that we'd be looking at many more pages if I waded into the 20th century linguistic research on the origins of the Etruscan language. I will venture here only to state that there does seem to be a general academic consensus that Etruscan, like the better-known isolate Basque, appears not to be a member of the Indo-European family of languages (Bonfante and Bonfante, 2002, The Etruscan Language, Revised Ed., Manchester University Press, pp. 49-51; read using the preview feature of Google Books, 22 Dec 2013) (c.f.:, accessed 23 Dec 2013). To parallel Thucydides et al., I will mention in passing that the non-Greek language on the famous Lemnos stele is either considered Etruscan ( , accessed 23 Dec 2013) or in a language related to Etruscan (Bonfante and Bonfante, p. 61); though the aforementioned Massimo Pallottino pretty much sank any arguments that sought to connect the culture of any inhabitants of Attica with that of the demonstrably-unique culture of Etruria. And of course, Pallottino's now famous arguments for the indigenous development of the indigenous Villanovan and descended Etruscan culture parallel the autochthonous arguments of Dionysius of Halicarnassus.

One can argue – and some have done so – that linguistic identity, cultural identity and ethnic identity are hardly a one to one mapping. The uniqueness of both Eruscan language and culture in the Italia of the early first millenium B.C. when taken together reinforce the argument that the Etruscans are their own thing and are clearly unrelated to a migration from to or from any other studied region in classical antiquity. In light of this, any research paper arguing to the contrary should be eyeballed with deep scrutiny to test the strength of its claims. Of course, every additional paper supporting such a result lends credence to it. On the flip side, every paper with findings that argue the opposite will detract. While a simple compilation for or against is a convenient measure for the trend of a current scientific discussion, it completely ignores the more important measures that judge the internal factors of each individual study, such as the statistical significance of the samples studied, the validity of assumptions, and the viability of any comparisons made between population analogs. In the context of the current discussion, examples of these would be the statistical significance of the small sample size of 30 Etruscan remains, the validity of assuming livestock populations will reflect human population trends, and using modern populations for populations of classical antiquity, respectively.

So here's a very brief list (NOT full citations) of all relevant papers I found on PubMed that argue for a connection between the Etruscans and Anatolia during classical antiquity:

  • The Etruscans: A Population-Genetic Study, 2004, - based on comparing DNA of 30 Etruscan bone remains with west Mediterranean and modern Italian gene profiles. (In the abyssal Wikipedia article on Etruscan origins, the sample size is said to be 80, which indeed was the starting number of samples in the study, but 50 were thrown out by the researchers after they identified them as being possibly contaminated – which says something rather positive about the integrity of the researchers, all things considered.)
  • The mystery of Etruscan origins: novel clues from Bos taurus mitochondrial DNA, 2007, - argues for a connection based on the similarity betw* een the DNA of modern Tuscan and Anatolian cattle.
  • Mitochondrial DNA Variation of Modern Tuscans Supports the Near Eastern Origin of Etruscans, 2007, - compared the DNA of 322 subjects in three modern Tuscany towns with * 55 sequenced modern gene pools from “West Eurasia.”
  • The Etruscan timeline: a recent Anatolian connection, 2009, - used 258 samples from 10 known Etruscan areas of Tuscany and Elba to build a dataset which compared favorably to Anatolia DNA datasets; the study also included a succinct rebuttal of arguments over Etruscan to modern Tuscany continuity (see the “against” list of papers below) based on sample size considerations.

So here's a list of all relevent papers I found on PubMed that argue against a connection between the Etruscans and Anatolia during classical antiquity:

  • Etruscan Artifacts, 2004, - a commentary on the first paper in the “for” list, questioning an abnormal and thereby unlikely genetic haplogrouping utilized in that paper plus a questioning of a non-standard and potentially inadequate statistical methodology used for the analysis of results, both of which cast substantial doubt on that paper's conclusions.
  • On the Etruscan Mitochondrial DNA Contribution to Modern Humans, 2004, - another commentary on the first paper in the “for” list discussing that in greater detail the problem with the unusual haplogrouping of the Etruscan DNA in that paper and why it calls into question the results of that paper.
  • Serial coalescent simulations suggest a weak genealogical relationship between Etruscans and modern Tuscans, 2006, - even accounting for genetic drift and influx of new genetic types into a population, any connection between modern Tuscans and classical Etruscan is poor at best, calling into question studies showing connections between Etruria and Anatolia based on modern Tuscan genetic datasets.
  • Genealogical discontinuities among Etruscan, Medieval, and contemporary Tuscans, 2009, - comparisons of robust modern, Medieval and Etruscan DNA datasets supports a discontinuity between populations of the Tuscany/Etruria region at about 1000 AD, which undermines any studies suggesting ties between Etruria and Anatolia or anywhere else based on modern Tuscan DNA data.
  • Origins and evolution of the Etruscans' mtDNA, 2013, - statistical modeling of known DNA datasets of modern Tuscans, Medieval Tuscan remains, classical Etruscan remains, and modern Anatolians does not support a postulated tie between Tuscany/Etruria and Anatolia before 5000 years ago, well before Herodotus's suggested origin period sometime in classical antiquity. This is the same paper as was discussed in the aforementioned Dienekes' Anthropology Blog.

There! That's it! That's all I could find on PubMed: four papers in favor and two commentaries plus three papers against an Etruscan-Anatolian ethnogenetic connection. All of the papers I found on the AAAS/Science index were included in the PubMed results, so I decided to use just the PubMed references since they are both inclusive, appear to be comprehensive on the subject and are publicly available (the AAAS/Science index is available only through paid membership to AAAS, which I belong to). I'm sure I might find one or two other papers on this subject if I were to visit the journal article indices available through research library search engines like MELVYL at the University of California libraries or the URSUS system for State of Maine and University of Maine libraries, to name to such services I've used in the past. If I were working on something to publish in an academic journal, I would certainly go to the extra work such a search would require; but for doing a decent survey of what's out there on this subject in reputable journals, PubMed is more than sufficient to uncover most of the published work.

Based on the above two lists, it should be obvious that there has been a lot of exposure of just a handful of papers supporting a Etruscan-Anatolian DNA connection both in the press and on websites whose authors and readership probably lack the means to understand the scientific arguments and conclusions involved. The big to-do in the press in 2007 went far beyond the New York Times and the Guardian. Articles on the same 2007 article, the one based on modern Tuscan DNA, not the one on cow DNA, was picked up by many other news outlets including the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Science Daily, New Scientist Magazine, Eurekalert - an AAAS breaking science news service, New Republic magazine, the Chicago Tribune... Since 2007, news of the the postulated Etruscan-Anatolian DNA connection has spread all over. Now if you do a web search on word groups like “Etruscan Anatolian DNA 2007” you will get page after page of links to blogs and amateur webpages – and a few academic pages here and there – all discussing this 2007 results linking the Etruscans of classic antiquity to Anatolia, usually with invocations of Herodotus and sometimes Thucydides for all the wrong reasons.

What is also obvious is that there is another handful of papers not considered in the press and only rarely discussed on websites, usually at a level not accessible to a non-scientific public, that argue against an Etruscan-Anatolian DNA connection in classical antiquity – with arguments that appear to be just as strong and well-considered on scientific grounds. It is apparent, at least to me, that this is an issue in ethnogenetics that is still under discussion in the scientific community. The field of ethnogenetics is a very young field. The foundational papers laying out methodology and techniques are around two decades old or less. What works and what doesn't is still somewhat up in the air. The status of things like unusual haplogroups for the characterization of a populations genetic make-up and appropriate statistical methodologies are still being hashed out. None of this has been conveyed any where in the press or on non-specialist websites on the internet.

Here's the punchline that you've endured many lines of text to reach: as far as a possible ethnogenetic link between the Etruscans and Anatolia in antiquity is concerned, there does not yet appear to be a scientific consensus for or against the hypothesis presented as fact in the news in 2007 and by subsequent non-science-savvy websites and blogs since then. Previous research on linguistic and cultural ground argues against such a connection in classical antiquity.

  • Post Script 1

I feel I must admit to some personal bias in the above post since I find the autochthonous origins arguments so beautifully presented by Massimo Pallottino and supported by most modern Etruscan scholars since then to be compelling. If you graze various academic sites you will find there are some reputable scholars who do hold other viewpoints. My sampling of these has not swayed me over to any of the non-autochthonous origin theories, but complete disclosure compels me to note that I did form a personal bias in this issue during the research done for this blog post. As always the Rule of YMMV applies.

  • Post Script 2

I will be contacting Osprey Books and Facts on File Inc. about any connections they may have with the blog. The appearance of possible plagiarism bothers me.

  • Post Script 3

The Hark, a vagrant comic is a delightful send-up of all things erudite and effete in academe and Canadian history. The comic about Herodotus and Thucydides linked in the text is just one example. I also really like the one on Hume, (accessed 24 Dec 2013).

Regardless, the giant ants referred to in the Herodotus vs. Thucydides comic can be found here: (accessed 24 Dec 2013).

Friday 27 September 2013

Can you say the dangers of fracking? Can you say cold fusion?

Has anyone been tracking nuances in the fracking debate? Of course, you'd have to be worse than me at ignoring the news to have missed the blow-up in the news media over fracking. Unfortunately, the coverage on fracking has been subject to the same sort of knee-jerk panic that environmental activists also to apply to global warming and nuclear power generation. Personally, I find the debate on the issues is driven by the perception of risk and not by the numbers. Is anyone surprised at this? When it comes to milking political situations or furthering dogma-based ideologies, fact is usually always the loser - and this is true of both sides of any hotly-contested issue. That's something that appears to hold whether you're living in the Roman Republic of antiquity or if you're living now in our modern democracy.

But enough with the pontificating on the poor treatment of evidence and fact-driven analysis. Today's post looks quickly at the controversy surrounding the research of Elaine Hill, a candidate for a Ph.D. at Cornell in Applied Economics. Here's good summary of what happened two months ago (1):

Hill’s work has focused on birth weight and other measures of the condition of babies born to women living close to gas wells in rural Pennsylvania and is summarized so far in a “working paper” titled “Unconventional Natural Gas Development and Infant Health: Evidence from Pennsylvania. The paper would have been an unremarkable draft of a graduate student’s research results had it not been disseminated last week with the help of a public relations firm retained by the nonprofit group New Yorkers Against Fracking and featured at a public forum run in Manhattan by Democrats in the State Senate.

I was rereading various articles on this gal and her paper when the parallel to cold fusion hit me in the nose. Remember cold fusion (2)? Two scientists interpreted a research result involving the electrolysis of heavy water on a palladium anode as a fusion event (hydrogen --> helium) at ambient temperature. Before the presentation of the results, the president of the University of Utah held a press conference about the experiment, worried that a rival research group at BYU would publish about a similar phenomenon first, thus confusing rival claims to cold fusion which would be an issue in the event of applying for patents. If cold fusion via the Utah set-up had turned out to be viable, the University of Utah could have reaped substantial monetary benefits as the majority patent owner of the process. In the end, when the Utah cold fusion experimental set-up was repeated by other labs, the result was not replicable.

The parallels with the Elaine Hill paper come down to this:

  1. The results of research were issued by non-scientists to the press before presentation and peer review.
  2. The motivation for release before presentation and peer-review was far removed from the traditional concerns of science: greed and ownership in the cold fusion case and political activism in the Elaine Hill case.
  3. The results were interpreted by non-scientists as true or false, not based on the slow grind of traditional scientific method presentation and peer review, but rather on what factions of the public wanted to believe was true, depending on their own pre-existing beliefs.

Cold fusion research isn't completely dead; however, because of the cold fusion fiasco of 1989, people in the field have rebranded the various interesting ambient-temperature energy events that are sometimes observed as Low Energy Nuclear Reactions. There has been some investment of research moneys in low energy nuclear reaction research, and rightly so. Good science is open-minded and if something looks like it needs reevaluation, it will happen sooner of later.

Let's get back to poor Elaine Hill and her research on babies with diminished health indicators who live near fracked natural gas wells. Unfortunately, no one can read this paper because it's in peer-review. When it gets published, a lot of folks are going to read it, including many outside her field because of the current controversy. She's not a grad student to be envied because, like Fleischman and Pons of cold fusion infamy, her research is going to be dissected by smart people, some of whom will have political or monetary agendas to service.

Is Hill's research sound? It might be; however, the great burden of studies like Hill's is the identification and elimination of other factors that could also effect the results. Any study based on the uncontrolled real-world runs a high risk that correlation does not prove causation. It's the classic drawback of studying natural systems with an unknown number variables. If she set-up her control group correctly and carefully, her study will have real teeth.

On the flip side the record, her results might not matter, other than to show that elevated exposure to gaseous hydrocarbons isn't good for infants... Now that's a trivial result in the grand scheme of things. Why? Because everyone already knows that. Like Fleischman and Pons of cold fusion infamy, Hill is going to have to propose a plausible and testable theory for why her results are tied to fracking. Fleischman and Pons were never able to explain a plausible mechanism for cold fusion. They had a result but they never presented a workable theory. Hill is going to be in the same boat: she may have a correlation, but unless she can proposed a testable theory to justify the correlation, she'll be just another economist looking for work outside of academe. That test should be easy - though it will be expensive. All one needs to do is run the study a second time, but with physical environmental monitoring installed at every dwelling involved. I'd be measuring not only atmospheric concentrations of pollutants but also ground vibration, weather parameters and proximity to other mining and drilling activities. After all, the infants might be reacting to hydrocarbon exposure, or they could be reacting to the endless rumble of trucks to and from drill rigs disturbing their slumber and causing a lack of sleep.

I'm sure of one thing - and that is I'm glad I'm not Elaine Hill right now.

There's another thing that may trivialize Elaine Hill's research if it survives peer review and public dissection: natural gas from fracked wells doesn't have to leak. Southwestern Energy, a major player in fracking natural gas in Arkansas, has taken their well construction prowess to the point where they build leak-tight wells (3). The company decided to get greener and treat the environment better. They consider this a price of doing business and they can certain go to town with the bragging rights. This underscores something I've been saying for years: properly-engineered and built wells don't have problems. It's not hard to build good wells and piping infrastructure - as the lack of contaminated aquifers in Texas and Oklahoma and California underscores nicely. When well construction is well-managed and well-regulated, the leakage from wells, both above and below ground, is negligible. Given that comments I supplied when California revised its well-construction standards in the late 80s, commentary that is now incorporated in the since-updated regulations, I think I know a little bit about the subject of building wells. Fracking is not the problem. Well construction is the problem - and well construction will be faulty when drillers can get away with cutting corners and regulators with enforcement power are thin on the ground.

What's required is the societal will to pay the costs of building good infrastructure and to enforce standards. If wells for unconventional gas plays were all built to high standards - and yes, it is possible - then fracking is an un-problem.

Un-problem??? Good thing my old high school English teacher doesn't read my blog!


  1., accessed 27 Sept 13.
  2. Taubes, G. (1993), Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion Random House, NY, 503 pp.
  3., accessed 27 Sept 13.

Sunday 8 September 2013

Aspartame and the Warburg Effect

There's an article floating around the internet about aspartame, a relatively benign substance unless you're one of the very few people with the rare genetic disease of phenylketonuria. You've probably run into it, a rant on how aspartame is the root of MS, fibromyalgia, an epidemic of seizures, extreme symptoms of lupus, inexplicable blindness, loss of ambulatory function, etc., etc. One almost expects claims that aspartame is responsible for athlete's foot and baldness! If you read with any critical evaluation of these various claims, it quickly becomes apparent that pseudo-science abounds. All the usual pseudo-science tricks are present: fake citation of supposed authoritative sources, anecdotal claims, lack of any proof that could withstand actual scientific scrutiny, claims of evidence suppression by business and/or government, etc. Frankly, crap like this really irritates me because with a little thought, 1) most anyone should be able to figure out the difference between factual reports and bull puckey, and 2) pseudo-science helps to further undermine public trust in our representative democracy and in the credibility of institutional science.

I'm getting ahead of myself here, so without further delay or tangents, today's target can be found at (accessed 8 Sept 13). Now I'm going to also point you to the debunking of this aspartame hoax by sending you to its entry at the granddaddy of all debunking websites,, at (accessed 8 Sept 13). To be frank, I'm not sure the snopes debunking page is all that great in this case because the Food and Drug Administration letter quoted on Snopes is probably too nuanced for most people to follow. Trust me on this: having been thru two different grad schools (Caltech and UCDavis, both in the top 25 schools in my field), what no one teaches in hard science is how to write for people who are not fellow hard scientists. The best you get is maybe a class on how to write and publish a scientific paper. Learning on how to communicate to the hoi polloi is not in the curriculum. The FDA letter quoted on Snopes is a good example of talking above the heads of most of the readership. But that's not really my topic today so let's leave this tangent for the time being.

One of things I've noticed about the aspartame-is-toxic article over the years is that the end of it often varies if the person posting it has something to sell you. The Rhonda Gessner blog post of this article is on a blog site whose object is to sell you water purification stuff. If you look at the aspartame-is-toxic article quoted on the Snopes website, it wanted to sell you some junk medicine books. This kind of gimmick is the internet equivalent of an infomercial on cable tv.

The end of the aspartame-is-toxic article on the Rhonda Gessner blog is really quite interesting, enough so that I will quote one part of it here:

I came across an article about Dr. Otto Warburg that said…he won the Nobel Prize in 1931 for proving that no disease including cancer, can survive in an alkaline body. From there…a friend told me about a Japanese medical device that makes alkaline water. She went on to tell me that since our body is 70% water, drinking alkaline ionized water is the easiest way to raise your pH. It makes perfect sense…the health “puzzle” is made up of many pieces including water, diet, exercise, sleep, etc. But since 3/4 of that puzzle is made up of one big piece…WATER, drinking enough of the “right” kind of water will have a HUGE impact on your health. If you’d like to learn more, click on the link and request your FREE eBook on Healthy Water: <<link to the product that this blog is pushing>>

The blog post ends immediately after this link with this sentence:

(just sharing this info from another blog…i’m not the author)

Did you catch that? By stating that everything above this disclaimer statement is from another blog, which is never cited by the way, this blog's author makes it look that someone else's blog was plugging the water purification product that this blog is marketing. Nice... Wow. Is that sarcasm I'm smelling?

It's certainly an interesting segue from aspartame in diet soda to drinking the right kind of water in order to prevent or cure cancer. You would think that such an amazing find by Herr Doktor Otto Wartburg would have circled the globe already with cancer cures and the cancer eradication becoming well-established everywhere. In fact, if such a thing were true, that no disease can exist in an alkaline body, then disease as we know it should have passed out of existence well-before the end of the 20th century. But here we are in the 21st century, and disease is alive and well, so to say.

So who was Otto Warburg and what did he really discover in his research about cancer? Right off the bat, Dr. Warburg was a research biochemist who worked in Italy and Germany. One interesting fact about the man is that he was friends with both Einstein and Max Planck. He won the 1931 Nobel Prize in Medicine for elucidating the mechanism and responsible enzymes for cellular respiration. As as outgrowth of his research on cellular respiration, he showed that cancerous cells required much less oxygen than normal cells because they replace aerobic cellular respiration with anaerobic glycolysis as a source of energy. The "Warburg effect" was Warburg's theory that even in aerobic conditions, cancer cells will persist in using glycolysis for energy rather than aerobic respiration. Warburg believed that the malignant transformation of normal to cancerous cells, i.e. from aerobic respiration to glycolysis for energy production, was the fundamental cause of cancer. Subsequent research of cancerous cell growth strongly suggests that the Warburg effect is itself the result of gene suppression and mutation; thus the anaerobic conditions associated with malignant tumors are not the cause of run-away glycolysis, but rather the result of gene misfunction.

So where do people get these strange ideas about the pH of biochemical processes and the acidity or alkalinity of human bodies? It doesn't make much sense to me. I have a inkling that it comes from a misunderstanding about the relationship of anaerobic processes in the body somehow being associated with acidity. Maybe it goes like this: the products of anaerobic glycolysis go through a non-Krebs cycle fermentation with an end product of lactic acid, thus increasing acidity. Now it looks like Warburg was thinking the anaerobic conditions were the precursor to the transformation from normal to cancerous cells, so even according to his theory, any increase in acidity from the creation of lactic acid was the effect of the cancerous cell glycolysis, not the cause. So this isn't really a good explanation for how someone might mistake Warburg's precursor anaerobic conditions for some kind of increase in body acidity.

The concept of an acidic vs. alkaline body is just plain weird. To say that your body is 70% water, and that drinking alkaline water will shift the pH of your body's water to more alkaline values is nonsense. Why? Because the so-called water in your body isn't really water. The water molecules in your body exist mostly as the solvent part of the solutions that form the so-called bodily fluids like blood, cerebral fluid, mucus, bile, vitreous humor and many others. Each of these fluids has its own optimum pH suited for the function that that fluid carries out in the body. Gastric acid, which is the stuff in your stomach, varies in pH between 1 and 4, depending on when you ate last. (For whatever it's worth, coke has a pH of approximately 2.5, well within the range of stomach acid.) The pH of blood is ~7.4 ± 0.05. Your body works continuously to keep your blood inside that range. If the pH of your blood shifts out of that range, it can make you quite sick but it doesn't cause cancer. Kidney or heart failure, maybe; but cancer, no. There's more blood in you than any other fluid but drinking a lot of acidic or alkaline water will not lead to shifts in the pH of your blood because bodies just don't work that way. Think of it this way: all the water you drink, regardless of its alkalinity or acidity, will always be instantly acidified upon ingestion. There's no way to avoid that acidification because it's the stomach job to attack everything you ingest with low pH gastic acid. So much for buying fancy gizmos to make your drinking water alkaline, if it isn't already that way already. A lot of water in North America is on the alkaline side of pH. If you live west of the Appalachian Mountains, chances are that your local drinking water is hard water - and hard water by definition is alkaline. Why buy a gizmo to deliver you alkaline water when all you really need to do is move to Arizona.

Trivia: There are actually two things called the Warburg effect, the one discussed here and one relating to photosynthesis, both "authored" by Otto Warburg. There is also a thing called the Reverse Warburg effect, which involves aerobic glycolysis rather than anaerobic glycolysis and wasn't the brain child of Warburg (Pavlides et al, 2009, pubmed 19923890).

Tangential Trivia: Krebs is the German word for cancer. Interestingly enough, Hans Adolf Krebs, explicator of the Krebs cycles, also known as the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle or citric acid cycle, once worked for Otto Warburg as his assistant. The Krebs cycle is one of the processes associated with aerobic respiration of normal cells. The process of cancerous non-Krebs cycle fermentation after glycolysis is therefore a bit tweaked as far as nomenclature is concerned when you consider that Krebs means cancer in Kreb's first language. Go figure.


Encyclopedia Britannica, "Otto Warburg," (accessed 8 Sept 2013, subscription required).

Kim, J. W., and Dang, C. V. (2006), Cancer's molecular sweet tooth and the Warburg effect, Cancer Research 66 (18): 8927–8930. (pubmed16982728)

López-Lázaro, M. (2008), The warburg effect: why and how do cancer cells activate glycolysis in the presence of oxygen? Anticancer Agents Med Chem 8(3):305-12. (pubmed18393789)

Menedez, J. A., and 9 others, (2013), The Warburg effect version 2.0: metabolic reprogramming of cancer stem cells, Cell Cycle 12(8):1166-79. (pubmed 23549172)

Warburg, O. (1956), On the origin of cancer cells, Science 123 (3191): 309–314. (, accessed 8 Sept 2013, subscription required)

Saturday 17 August 2013

It's not basalt

Today's object of getting it wrong is an article in the New York Times. You can read it here: (accessed Aug. 17, 2013)

It's a piece discussing a geology article in this week's issue of Science, which is the premier of all scientific journals in the USA and along with the Royal Society's Nature is one of the two most respected journals in the world, bar none. An article in Science is a big deal for any scientist. Using the Science article as a departure point, the NY Times article drew a link between a geological event and a modern analog. The first event is the formation of the famous Palisades sill and a Triassic mass extinction event. The latter event is present-day global warming and the current modern mass extinction event we're currently in the middle of.

It wouldn't have been a bad piece - for those who like that sort of gloom-and-doom style of writing in the news - if the science had been better. You wouldn't know it from reading this article that the subject of the Science paper was about making better links between the break-up-of-Pangea rifting events and one of the largest mass extinction events in the geological record through the use of U-Pb dating methods. The abstract of the Science paper is free for reading online, though to get the whole paper you either have to be a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science or you can purchase just the text of the paper separately from an AAAS member's perk subscription to Science. If you're into geochronology, the Science paper is really a bid at revising the date of the Triassic-Jurassic age boundary. Well, that's my interpretation of this paper's purpose from reading between the lines. It's a big deal to instigate a revision of a Geological age boundary and it gives any researcher no end of excellent bragging rights in the relatively small and cloistered world of academic earth science.

Like many journalists writing about science, the NY Times reporter posed his account as if the link between big volcanic provinces and mass extinctions was startling, new and revolutionary. It's actually old news. The idea's been floating around for at least two decades. The American Geophysical Union monograph on the subject makes a good starting point if anyone is interested in this fascinating subject (Mahoney, J., and F. Coffin, Eds., 1997, Large Igneous Provinces: Continental, Oceanic, and Planetary Flood Volcanism, Geophys. Monogr. Ser., vol. 100, 438 pp., AGU, Washington, D. C., doi:10.1029/GM100.). Okay, I think it's fascinating but I'm also published in the broader field of continental volcanism. I might be biased here since not everyone is as deeply committed to rocks as I am.

No, I'm not really going to dump on this NY Times article because it made the Palisades sill sound like the source of the incredibly widespread Pangea-rifting event called the Central-Atlantic "Large Igneous Province" or "LIP." It's a fun acronym, LIP. Imagine thousands of smirking geologists going to American Geophysical Union or Geological Society of American conferences to attend sessions on LIPs. That's right up there with the US EPA's original program name for testing and remediating underground storage tanks, LUST, or the Navy's now-retired acronym for the now-renamed bureau of yards and docks, BuDocks (which was often mispronounced to rhyme with a feature of posterior anatomy). No, the reporter's presentation of the Palisades, the beautiful and famous massive cliff across the Hudson from Manhattan, as the font of all Central Atlantic LIP volcanism is not really worth nitpicking at. The reporter mispresenting the Science Pangea rift basin geochronology article as an analog argument for modern mass extinction is also not really worth nitpicking at. No, that's not what sent me off a cliff this time around. This time around it's all about basalt. I'm a bit of an expert on basalt. Wrote some good papers on basalt and continental basaltic volcanism in my day.

To make it even more personal, my first geology field trip ever was to the Palisades sill. I was an engineering student at Columbia. I had to take the "geology for science and engineering students" class as a requirement for my major. In the space of 10 weeks, I got hooked on rocks big time - so hooked that I took up geology instead of engineering. And part of that story involves those first fascinating field trips into the Triassic rift basin known as the Newark basin formed by the break-up of the Pangea super-continent. There are some first-rate rift-basin igneous rocks in the environs of New York City, including the Palisades Sill, which forms that spectacular cliff on the west bank of the Hudson, as well as the three prominent basalt flows which form the three big ridges to the west of NYC. The closest of these basalts, the Orange Mountain Basalt, crops out on I-80 in Patterson , New Jersey. That was included in one of those Columbia University geology field trips too. If you live anywhere near NYC or if you go driving down that patch of I-80 in New Jersey, you really need to check it out. The outcrop is on the south side of the interstate. It's hard to miss since it's a great big ridge that the interstate cuts through. In that cut are the most beautiful, well-formed, lovely pillows of basalt that you can see aanywhere. You would have to go to Hawaii or Iceland to see any as good. Not even the pillow basalts on Francis Drake Drive in Marin County, California, are as good. Serious wow-factor pillow basalt - in New Jersey, spitting distance from NYC, ticket to Hawaii or Iceland not required!

newark basin If you have no idea of what I'm raving about here, a pillow basalt is one that erupted in a water body like the ocean. Due to the action of water on the erupting basalt, the surface of a pillow basalt flow looks like a giant pile of grey to black pillows, ranging in size from bed pillows to haram pillows and bean bag chairs. You usually don't see pillow basalts in the large continental basalts like those in Idaho or Oregon or Washington. You do see them in places like Iceland or Hawaii or along the mid-oceanic rifts. The one on the highway in Paterson, NJ, formed in the young late-Triassic rift system that eventually formed what is today the Atlantic Ocean.

The Palisades were formed by injection of tholeiitic-composition magma into sediments a few kilometers down. The ingredients list for the Palisades Sill is essentially the same as for the tholeiite basalt barfed out of oceanic rifts; however, since the Palisades Sill was an intrusion, not an eruption, it's a rock type called diabase. The difference between diabase and basalt is one of texture. Basalts are formed from magma that is erupted at the surface into either air or water. Since eruption is a surface event, the magma is flash-frozen into a fine-grained rock which often includes lots of little gas bubble cavities called vesicles. There's a whole lexicon of terms just for patterns of vesicles in basalts that I will spare you from explaining for now. Diabases do not cool quickly like basalts since they are intruded away from the chill of the earth's atmosphere or hydrosphere. Injected into already-buried rocks, a diabase has time to cool slowly. This allows mineral grains time to grow to large sizes visible to the naked eye without a microscope or hand lens. In the Palisades Sill, the crystal grains of minerals formed and then settled into layers within the cooling magma body in a pattern known as crystal fractionation. In fact, the Palisades Sill is used as the exemplar of crystal fractionation in geology text books. It's famous for its obvious crystal fractionation features, like the ten-foot thick basal layer of green olivine crystals that you can see in the parking lots of some strip malls and apartment buildings in Jersey City, NJ, some of which I visited on those Columbia University geology field trips many years ago. It's not the sort of thing you forget: the towering vertical face, hundreds of feet tall, of the Palisades, and at its base, that shiny green layer of glassy, gemmy olivine. I'll never forget that trip: the hot September Saturday afternoon, the light blue Columbia van, the tops of Manhattan's skyscrapers across the river in the muggy haze, the two bored TAs, the smell of the garbage dumpster in the parking lot behind a supermarket in Jersey City, the fat buzzing flies, the fractured vitreous olivine crystals. To go on that field trip, I had to skip playing in the university band at that Saturday's football game at UPenn. I always liked collecting rocks, ever since I was four, but it was on those field trips that I fell in love with geology.

So while I can forgive the author of this NY Times article his sins of misrepresenting the point of this LIPs geochronology paper in Science, I do take exception at one thing. The author called the Palisades a basalt. It's not a basalt. It's a diabase. It's like calling a sugar beet a radish or a napa cabbage a brussel sprout. It's just not the same! I can barely tolerate hijacking a LIPs geocrhonology paper for pontificating on the evils of global warming but I can't stand it when someone gets the basic rock identification just plain wrong. Calling a thing by its proper name really does matter.

Further Reading:

The USGS has some nice webpages on the Palisades and the Triassic-Jurassic Newark rift basin at and The article in Science mentioned in the NY Times can be found here: (All links accessed 17 Aug 2013.) The figure of Newark Basin stratigraphy is from the USGS webpage on the Newark Basin

Monday 25 March 2013

It's Not The Richter Scale!

Today's sinner for getting things wrong on the internet is the website. The subject matter of this website is nuclear energy. I discovered this site last week after I finished a book by the website owner on the Fukushima power plant fiasco. The book, by the way, is really good - one of the most readable accounts I've ever seen for explaining a nuclear accident. It's only available as an e-book but the price is below that of most paperbacks - $4. The book is Fukushima: the First Five Days by Leslie Corrice.

I hunted down Corrice's website after I finished his book. Those of anti-nuke tendencies may disagree with me, but I found the content of his website to be factual and well written. If you are open-minded about issues concerning nuclear energy, there's some thoughtful stuff on that's well worth reading. But Corrice a made mistake that's on my personal pet peeve list, though it has nothing to do with nuclear issues. The mistake is on the web page at Here's the goof:

Data from Japan’s Reconstruction Agency reveals the earthquake-related mortality from 3/11/11 is worse than previously thought. Now included in the total are 2,601 deaths attributed to the 9-Richter scale earthquake itself.

Where's the mistake? It's the Richter scale. Teleseismic events, the so-called "great earthquakes" are never reported using Richter magnitudes. In fact, most earthquakes are not reported in Richter magnitudes and haven't been for more than 30 years. The Richter scale was concocted by Richter as a system of measurement for the infant Southern California seismic network that Richter and Gutenberg were building at Caltech in the 1930s. There wasn't a method of measuring earthquakes quantitatively before this. Richter's scale was designed for the So. Cal. seismic network to measure local and regional earthquakes using specifically Wood-Anderson torsional seismographs. The abbreviation for the Richter scale is ML- the "L" stands for "local." Richter magnitude is based on the first arrivals of an earthquake's wave-train. It is incapable of measuring the true magnitude of teleseismic events (i.e., really big earthquakes that can be measured globally) because it is insensitive to the large surface waves that develop in great earthquakes. Surface waves don't show up in a teleseismic wave-train until well after the arrival of the initial compression and shear waves - but a large bite of an teleseismic earthquake's energy resides in those surface waves which the Richter scale doesn't see. As a result, the Richter scale is inaccurate at high values and saturates between 7 and 8. The Richter scale was a great advance in its heyday but it has been replaced by more accurate ways of measuring earthquake magnitude.

There is no such thing as a magnitude 9 earthquake on the Richter scale. It's a physical impossibility.

Back when I was at the Seismo Lab at Caltech, in the days when I still thought I wanted be a seismologist, middling to large earthquakes were usually reported in the Ms scale, which is a scale that uses the size of the surface wave train, or in the relatively new Mw scale, which is based on the total energy release of an earthquake. The Ms scale isn't wonderful on small local and regional events, because little earthquakes don't develop measurable surface waves. And like the Richter scale, Ms also saturates between 7 and 8. The Mw scale, also known as the Moment Magnitude scale, does not saturate whatsoever for earthquakes above Mw>8. It is the only scale that is as good with the small earthquakes as it is for great earthquakes. Most earthquakes magnitudes these days are reported using the Mw scale.

The problem with the Richter scale stems from the fact that it was the first practical quantitative scale for earthquakes. As the only game in town for many years, the "Richter scale" became the common catch-all name for earthquake magnitudes, and was used in much the same way as "xerox" was used for copies and "kleenex" was used for tissue paper. For a magnitude scale that isn't used anymore, its name has taken on a zombie-like existence of its own and refuses to die.

Anyone who is interested in this sort of stuff should go and check out the USGS's earthquake webpages at