As many people have pointed out, my comic about tweets outrunning seismic waves seems to have been widely verified in yesterday’s earthquake:

It’s always nice to see real-life confirmation of your calculations! The quake started in Virginia at 13:51:04 EST, where most of my family lives.  Texts from my brother in Charlottesville (25 miles from the epicenter) were slowed down by the spike in cell traffic, but I got an IRC message from my brother in Newport News, VA at 13:52:09. Based on USArray/EarthScope detector readings posted at Bad Astronomy, his message overtook the seismic waves outside Philadelphia, and reached New England over a minute before the quake was felt there.

I once heard a story (originally told by Kevin Young) about Gerson Goldhaber, who was a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. He was talking on the phone with another physicist at SLAC near Stanford University near the end of the day on Tuesday, October 17, 1989. The SLAC physicist suddenly interrupted with, “Gerson, I have to go! There’s a very big earthquake happening!” and then hung up. So Gerson stepped out into a group of people in the hall, made a big show of yawning and checking his watch, then said, “Aren’t we about due for an earthquake?” Before anyone could respond, the Loma Prieta earthquake reached Berkeley, and he became a legend.

My best friend from college is from Mineral, VA, a town of a few hundred people and one stoplight, which was at the epicenter of yesterday’s quake. A few years ago, he moved to Sendai, Japan, where he got an apartment just a few miles from the coast. Fortunately, he survived the March earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. Last I heard from him, he was moving back home. He really can’t catch a break. Fortunately, it sounds like there’s not too much damage. (Though from what I remember of Mineral, I can’t help but wonder—if the quake did cause damage, how would you tell?)

109 thoughts on “Earthquakes

  1. Ironically enough, I was in the vibration test facility at work and didn’t notice anything unusual. I felt like I missed out. I’m gonna go back and look for blips in the data.

  2. Pingback: One Foot Tsunami: XKCD on Earthquakes

  3. Hrm, wherever your friend goes, there are earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear events. Time to scratch somebody off the “potential roommate” list… :D

  4. Pingback: How to “predict” an earthquake |

  5. At work, in Durham, NC, we were already discussing the shaking in our IRC chatroom before our remote worker in Charlotte felt it, and was then able to confirm that it was not, in fact, large equipment driving by.

  6. It’s funny. all I could think of was that comic, and certain ragecomics, when I looked on my facebook. Here’s to science and human predictability.

  7. In small earthquakes people’s awareness varies wildly; we slept through a small earthquake in the Midwest because our bed is a Tempurpedic-type material and it absorbed all the motion, but I saw a marble move on my desk the next afternoon and instantly recognized its aftershock.

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  9. Ironically enough for your friend, the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station is pretty much right by the epicenter. Fortunately, its two reactors were taken offline. The site lost external power, so they ran the diesel generators. However, 1 of 4 safety generators leaked coolant and was shut down, and replaced by the 5th standby generator… or so sayeth the wiki. But other than that, all seems well there.

    More curious still is that after (or despite) Fukushima, there wasn’t all that much talk about this on the news as far as I could tell.

  10. Crazy, I grew up in Louisa and most of my family still lives there. My parents reported some broken glasses from cabinets and pictures off the walls, but no structural damage that they’ve seen. But you’re absolutely right about likely not being able to tell what the damage was in Mineral.

    Now I’m scouring my memory and Facebook friend list to see if I know anyone who moved to Japan…

  11. How funny, I grew up around the corner from Gerson, and was close friends with his three grandchildren. He never told me that story, but that certainly sounds like something he would’ve done!


  12. Kind of reminds me of the way in SNES RPGs that NPCs will know of recent events in other regions, even when 1) the event has JUST occurred, 2) you & your party went DIRECTLY from point A (where the event occurred) to point B (where everyone already knows about it), and 3) it would be impossible for anyone else to have traveled there faster than you, because your party is the most capable of traversing monster-infested areas. Guess they’re all using Twitter.

    It seems more interesting that zoo animals in Washington knew of the earthquake before humans did. Somehow I don’t think that their secret was Twitter.

  13. Pingback: Earthquakes, social media, XKCD and science | Living in a Media World

  14. I read the USA Today article and desperately went searching for comic #723 to show all my xkcd nerd friends. Go science!

  15. I (in VA) was on skype with somebody in Windsor (Canada). She saw my apartment shake for 30 seconds, then a couple of minutes later, she felt the shaking herself. We thought it was really cool!

  16. So, there’s no blag post for it, so this will have to do, but it seems like congratulations are in order?


  17. I live in Chile, we have lots of quakes. I can also confirm that you would get the information through the internet before you feel the movement, also through the phone. I’ve been able to hear a quake before it starts to move (I don’t know why some quakes have sound). The best experience was when I was living in a 9th floor and I actually could hear the car alarms going off before I felt the ground move.

    Also, congratulations!

  18. Technology undoubtedly travels faster than seismic waves as evidenced by the fact that my phone usually manages to give me a ten second to two minute warning for major quakes anywhere in Japan before I feel them (built in feature when you happen to buy a phone in Japan). It’s always cool when the alarm goes off and then, seconds later, nature catches up. What’s even more peculiar is how I’ll be in a supermarket and hear my alarm simultaneously with three or four other people who own Androids (seems to only be built in to them) and everybody will ignore their alarms and keep on shopping, while I wonder if I should be moving out of the aisles in direct harm’s way.

    After the big earthquake in March, my phone was going off five or six times a day (only gives me warnings for really big quakes), but I haven’t gotten a warning since maybe May. I think a 5.8-6.0 like they had in Virginia wouldn’t set it off, but it’s exciting nonetheless.

  19. So interesting to read this. My husband and I may be your oldest (and I am talking age, rather than length of following) fans, and we are in Charlottesville. My teenage son was crushed to find that he was not the first to post a Facebook status about the quake. For a moment I think he believed that it only happened at our house.

    Congratulations to you and your new bride. I hope that her treatments are going as well as can be expected of something that is intrinsically horrible.

  20. Culpeper, VA, about 30 miles north of Mineral, has had most of their historic district condemned. Pretty much every building older than 150 years is now considered dangerous to enter.

    But that’s what you get with unreinforced masonry – it’s pretty much the worst possible way to build something for an earthquake.

    Don’t really remember Mineral – it’s possible I’ve never been – but it’s also possible I’ve driven through. Darn small.

  21. I <3 that the article says, "A comic strip posted by XKCD explained that the fiber signals that transfer tweets move much faster than the actual seismic waves." Cause a comic strip is *such* a reliable source of factual information. (Of course, yours actually is, more so than others)

    Also, congratulations!

  22. Very off topic but if I understand the meaning of comic 943 “Empirical”, Congratulations!?

  23. This reminds me I was gchatting w a friend once who lived about 1 mile from me, and after hearing a loud bang (we were not in the best neighborhood)
    me: did you hear that gunshot?
    friend: no
    friend: yes

  24. Sometime in the ’70s in Philly we were shocked out of our beds by a strong sharp quake. Once I had ascertained it was not 1) the Soviets ICBMing the local refineries, 2) the local refineries blowing up for some other reason, or 3) pipelines to or from the local refineries blowing up…

    …I went back to bed.

    Seems all social networking has done is expend a lot of money, electricity, energy, and human attention on stuff better addressed by getting back to whatever one was doing when it happened.

    In SF/Bay Area/South Bay, a 5.9 or 5.8 would mean, yeah, it was…hm…Friday.

    On the good side, the amount of hysteria that social networking unleashed over this little quake once again vindicated my choice not to build a Skinner box in my basement, and then kidnap people to put into it and observe them as an ongoing test of my hypothesis that most of them have a higher DQQ* than IQ by orders of magnitude.

    *Drama Queen Quotient

  25. My husband texted me “earthquake” from Baltimore. I didn’t think anything of it, but then a few minutes later our building was shaking in Boston. After I texted him back, he immediately mentioned the seismic wave xkcd and calculated the lapse!!!

    Anyhoo, you were right, and hilarious, as always.


  26. Speaking of waves carrying…regarding comic 943 “Empirical,” posted 8/26/2011, may I also assume that congratulations are in order for you and your lovely bride?

    Congratulations! :)

  27. The first and last “shaked” cartoons replicate my usual end-of-day degree of myopia so precisely that it took a good ten seconds to realize why the ones in the middle of the strip looked so clear instead. Quite freaky.

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