Magnitude: It’s Much More Than a Number

I ran into a little mystery today. It seems that an earthquake shook some of the residents in a suburb of Dallas, Texas at 11:05 PM “last night” CDT or 12:05 AM “this morning” EDT. The magnitude of this quake was rated on the Richter Scale at 3.4. Surely our little station M49A would have picked up the shock waves moving through our area…Or would it?

See below.


Your eyes immediately spot the waves between 16:00 and 18:00….WHAT? That means our station picked up these waves at about 16:37 UTC or 12:36 PM EDT??? 12 HOURS LATER?…..LUNCH TIME?

I searched in the USGS website.

This M7.3 quake hit the country of Columbia about 6 minutes earlier.  So, WHERE is the Texas quake? Look close just to the right of 4:00 above.

See the first three tiny “blips” with a slightly thicker blue line?….That’s it.

What is going on? The answer is MAGNITUDE or how the waves of quakes are measured. Even with the amplitude reduction of the larger quake figured in, I had trouble finding the smaller Texas quake.

Here we go….

How much bigger is a 4.0M compared to a 3.0M?  10 TIMES.!!!! Each whole number on the scale means there is 10 times the amplitude of the resulting waves…It’s called a logarithmic scale, if you care…But, that is not the point here….

So how is your math? Let’s go from 3.4M to 7.3M…Each whole number step is 10 TIMES more…So that is 10 X 10X 10X 10! or…GULP…. almost 10,000 times more shaking amplitude from the stronger shock waves!

Give me a minute to calm down and explain….

I took advantage of our tax dollars and downloaded this from the USGS..

M 3.0 to 3.4 = Felt quite noticeably by persons indoors, especially on upper floors of buildings. Many people do not recognize it as an earthquake. Standing motor cars may rock slightly. Vibrations similar to the passing of a truck. Duration estimated. This is what the folks in Dallas noticed (or missed.)

M 3.0 to 3.9 =  Felt indoors by many, outdoors by few during the day. At night, some awakened. Dishes, windows, doors disturbed; walls make cracking sound. Sensation like heavy truck striking building. Standing motor cars rocked noticeably.

Now let’s take it up a few notches…

What about M 7.0 and above????? Remember 10,000 times more wave amplitude. Naturally the effects depend WHERE the epicenter is and HOW DEEP it is….This one in Columbia was 168Km (104 miles) deep, (that’s good.) NOTE: The USGS has since downgraded it to M7.1( let’s skip the math here)….Little damage and no injuries reported….But LOTS of people felt it!

What IF the epicenter were closer to the surface (and the people)???? Scientists use levels to measure the degree of damage, starting at VIII. (The lower levels are for magnitudes less than 7.0)

VIII. Damage slight in specially designed structures; considerable damage in ordinary substantial buildings with partial collapse. Damage great in poorly built structures. Fall of chimneys, factory stacks, columns, monuments, walls. Heavy furniture overturned. So build well, or pay later!

IX. Damage considerable in specially designed structures; well-designed frame structures thrown out of plumb. Damage great in substantial buildings, with partial collapse. Buildings shifted off foundations.

X. Some well-built wooden structures destroyed; most masonry and frame structures destroyed with foundations. Rails bent.

XI. Few, if any (masonry) structures remain standing. Bridges destroyed. Rails bent greatly.

XII. Damage total. Lines of sight and level are distorted. Objects thrown into the air.

YIKES! I am sure you remember the last “Big One”. Check it out on the list of largest quakes recorded…

3/11/2012 Japan. Magnitude 9.0

Only 177 Km (109 miles) off the east coast of Japan and a depth of only 30 Km (18.6 miles)

See? It’s not just the magnitude but the distance and the depth as well.

In any scientific investigation, there are always surprises. This one has revealed two…

1. Charles Richter (RICK-ter) of the “Richter Scale”, one of several scales used in seismology, made tremendous contributions to the WORLD in monitoring and preparing for earthquakes. He was however, a bit of a character that would make an interesting topic in a future blog.

2. Why did he use MAGNITUDE to measure the strength of quakes?  He was also fascinated with ASTRONOMY!  The brightness of objects in the sky is measured in magnitudes…Yet another possible blog topic.

“I feel the earth move under my feet, I feel the sky tumbling down, tumbling down.” – Carole King

MZH     of between the stones and the stars.


Neptune’s Birthday and Free Life Advice (worth every penny)

166 years ago today, September 23rd, 1846, Johann Gottfried Galle discovered the planet Neptune, the first ‘official’ observation of our outermost planet (sorry Pluto) in human history.


The story however is a bit more in depth than that, and something that I think we can all learn from in an odd science-applied-to-life-lessons way.

Over two centuries earlier, in 1610, Galileo made what was a near heretical discovery. He observed moons, or other worlds, orbiting the planet Jupiter. Why was it heretical? Most at the time believed the Earth to be the center of the universe; that the sun, and all the heavens orbited around us, in perfect paths that have never, nor will ever change. The discovery of something orbiting something else far off in the distance strengthened the minority opinion that many scholars and public figures (including the Pope who Galileo called out on this error in a few Imagebooks) were wrong. Thus, not entirely popular outside of the scientific community, nor with the church.  That old guy with the white beard and the popped collar was to some quite a pompous hell raiser in his day.

A few years later, as Galileo was still charting and observing his newly discovered moons, he made a brief mention in his notes of a ‘fixed star’ he saw, lying somewhere beyond Jupiter. He mentioned this star on both December 28th, 1612, and January 27th, 1613. Oddly that was the end of it. He made a few scribbles that something wasn’t quite right about this star, but he never went back to it, and never made an attempt to observe it again. No one really knows for sure, but with the mass of data he was processing with Jupiter’s moons and all the excitement around his discovery, it was maybe just…overlooked.

That fixed star was actually the planet Neptune. You can even play around with various planetarium programs to ‘go back in time’ to that date, and see that the two planets lined up perfectly in the sky. Neptune appeared ‘fixed’ or stationary against the background stars because it had just entered what is called ‘retrograde motion’ where an object orbiting outside of our own orbit seems to stop, and then go backwards a bit. Sort of like watching someone run around a track. For a moment your head and eyes don’t move, the person is ‘visually stationary’ in their circular path.  Galileo was looking up at Jupiter on the exact date that Neptune started retrograde, talk about perfect timing to see a ‘fixed’ star.


Neptune then just kept on doing what Neptune does for another 233 years. Uranus, (the butt of many jokes, actually pronounced Ur-uh-nus) the planet before Neptune and beyond Saturn, took another 168 years to be discovered by musician-turned-astronomer, William Herschel around 1781. Galileo, in 1613, almost discovered the last planet in our solar system, invisible to the naked eye, two planets and billions of miles beyond anything that was known at the time.

So what’s the point? How can we relate?

All of us strive for, and will eventually achieve some form of success. Success varies obviously. Not all of us will go on to discover new worlds, but if you’re a custodian, you’re going to maintain a great building, if you’re a teacher, you’re going to write a great lesson plan, if you’re a salesman, you’re going to complete a big deal. It’s going to happen, because it’s how we as a species stay alive, reproduce, and find our way in life. The alternative is never-ending failure, which biologically we are not programmed to do. It’s in your DNA…to be successful at some level, and at some thing, in your life.

Okay, so why then do we care about Galileo’s scribbles about a ‘fixed star?’

It’s not the tireless hours of innovation, hard work, and preparation that should scare us. During those times you are alert, you are focused, you are aware that something is possibly out there, just over the horizon that you are working towards. What should scare us are those moments of success, when we make our own big discoveries, and are enjoying the moment we have created. Enjoy the moment, you’ve earned it. However, pay attention to what information might now be available to you that might push your knowledge even farther, and turn something great, into something out-of-this-world.

Am I saying Galileo was a failure? Of course not.  However his mistake (if you can even call it that) is a fantastic lesson to be learned. Keep your eyes and mind open during the good times. You never know what ‘fixed stars’ of your own lie just beyond the moment you’re in, waiting to be discovered.



Owl Pellets


What you see here are owl pellets. That is the polite term for the remains of the regurgitated remains of the victims of an owl’s meal…In other words….”Owl Barf”!

These pellets can easily be found where ever an owl(or hawk) has chosen to relax and enjoy its dinner. You will find the pellets under a large branch or close to the trunk of a tree. Owls really love a snack site in a tree that the top is broken off. That way they can look for their next meal while they munch.

Each pellet (it is NOT poop) usually contains the hair and bones of at least one slow mouse, or some other creature that zigged instead of zagged. Using forceps(tweezers), toothpicks or other pointed tools, carefully pull the pellet apart. Adding a few drops of water sometimes helps to open the pellet up. It will not smell because the owl’s stomach acids have killed or dissolved everything but the hair and bones. (Naturally, always wash your hands when finished.)

So who are some of the the losers of the night?          Enjoy!


A mandible (jaw bone).


The front leg joint (just like your elbow). The top bone is the end of the humerus(upper arm bone) and the bottom two are the radius and ulna(forearm bones). The one with the little notch in it is the ulna. It allows your elbow to bend.


The pelvis and femur or hip of the mouse. See where the ball( on the femur) fits in the socket? The socket is still filled with fur…sorry….


Not even owl barf grosses out Hannah, our Youth Science Advisor.


Not a good night to be a mouse.

The amusing video below explains how owl pellets can be used in a science lab.

You can actually buy them wrapped in foil from science supply companies, but it is far more fun(and cheaper) to look for  them on your own.


More Microscopic Marvels…








You may be wondering….”How do you get the picture?”

Once your object is in focus, set your camera (or fancy phone) to the “close-up” setting. Hold the camera lens to the eyepiece until you can clearly see the image on your screen……Steady……..SLOWLY push the button to take the picture. You may need to do several to get one good one, but it is well worth the wait.


Science Toys

To explore the world of science, you need only your senses and a curious mind…..But if you want to go where few people have gone before, you need scientific tools(toys)….Looking for a science toy that is cheap and will open your mind to a whole new world? A simple magnifying glass, of decent quality, is a terrific place to start. It’s cheap, dependable and very easy to use. Who here has not used a magnifying glass to look at gross things or burn objects with a point of sun light?

If you find yourself (or a little person) wanting more, look for one of these….Image

It is called a dissecting or stereomicroscope. It is very simple to use and not that expensive. I spotted this little beauty in an antique store. The owner commented during my purchase, “Do you collect microscopes?”   My reply,”Are you kidding? This is a Bausch & Lomb dissecting scope for only $35!!!!!! This is a BARGAIN!…… She paled……”. In all honesty, some of you have seen these things and had no idea what they can do. With a little time and practice, a microscopic universe can be opened for you to explore. The hardest part is learning how to focus by turning the large black knobs at the sides.

Models and companies will vary a little, but the design is the same. See the two eye pieces(lenses at the top)? They move in and out to adjust for big or little explorers. The only modification I made on this one is to add a LED headlight to the arm to provide light for viewing. A simple desk lamp will do the same.



Hannah (my youth science advisor) fell in love with this thing immediately! Once you get the interpupilary distance adjustment set…..(WHAT?……Move the eye pieces so it matches BOTH your eyes)….and learn how to focus…… the microworld is yours!….

Question? : Is she looking at……bones?  Yep! Bones of mice. Stay tuned for a blog on mouse bones found in Owl Pellets.

Want to see a preview of a whole new world that awaits?…..Look below…

The world is yours to explore!

Caution: If you decide to look at an engagement ring with this optic toy, you may be disappointed to see the flaws in your “perfect” stone…

Give that man in your life a break! No one is supposed to see a diamond under THESE conditions!

They still love you more than any carbon crystal(diamond) can symbolize!


Anything is Possible

One foggy morning, I spotted this single spider web and took a picture.

Then I made some measurements.


It is a single web that is over 40 feet (12M) long and each end is over 14 feet(4M) above the ground in the trees.
The low spot in the middle is still over 3 feet (1m) above the ground. The attachment point at each end is NOT at the lowest branch of that tree. How could a “mindless” spider accomplish such an impossible task?

The true answer is not certain, as no one was there to witness it….But the leading hypothesis(scientific guess) is below…..

Got a better one?……..Do tell!



WIND is the secret! The spider took advantage of the wind. The general wind pattern at this site is blowing from the camera position towards the distant tree.

It was the night before…(Afternoon would be far less likely because a driveway passes under this web and would have cut it with a single vehicle/body.)

Hypothesis 1. The spider let out it’s line, like fishing line off a reel. The wind carried it to the opposite tree and it stuck.

Hypothesis 2.(The exciting one.) The spider attached it’s line to the upwind tree (camera position) and JUMPED! The wind would catch the spider and it would drift to the opposite tree and then attach the other end there.

The early morning dew would then weigh the web down so it would sag closer to the ground.

It’s called “ballooning”.

So, are they really mindless victims of the wind????      Enjoy..

Who are YOU, calling ME “mindless”???

We…are small.


If you turn on your TV, you will soon realize on the news that everything is out to get us. Astronomy is no different. Solar flares, asteroids, comets, you name it. All scary things that are actually quite real, and reason 512b that our space program should be taken seriously. But…those issues I just listed are really pretty small.  One has to imagine that in a galaxy like the Milky Way, with an estimated 400-600 billion stars and likely millions of worlds that exist near them, horrible and catastrophic things are constantly occurring. Worlds are colliding, the skies in some cases, are literally falling, suns are exploding, and beings that we may never meet, are having days far worse than any of us can hardly imagine.

But that’s part of the beauty, in a strange way, of looking  up. We are small. Very small. Not just in a sense of our size, but in a sense of our significance.  Our issues, our problems, our flaws, our fears. The dent in your car, your phone’s reception, the brand of boots your dog wears. All very, very…small.

So small that sometimes a photograph when thought of relative to distance helps us relate to the tiny specs we are, and the enormity of space. Above is a picture from our backyard at the farm of the northeast sky last weekend, around midnight. Below is the same, at a slightly higher magnification. The white smudge you see, is actually an entire galaxy, M31, or sometimes referred to as the Andromeda Galaxy. It’s a very close representation to what our own galaxy looks like, at a distance of 2.5 million light years away. A light year being the distance light can travel in a year. Light as we perceive it, is instant. But much like seeing the delay in the sound of someone beating a drum at a concert from the last row in the house, light takes time to get to us too.

While sound moves at a pokey 770 miles per hour, light moves at about 186,000 miles…per second. So, light traveling 186,000 miles each and every second, of each and every day, still takes 2.5 million years, just to get here from our nearest spiral galaxy neighbor, M31. Miles don’t really do it justice. What’s even better, we’re seeing the light as it was when it left M31…2.5 million years ago. We are essentially looking into the past. That light was created when the ice ages were first occurring here on earth. Forget telescopes, humans as we know them weren’t even here yet, a guy named homo habilis was roaming around. If we could peak in on ‘real time’ in M31, it would be a world advanced 2.5 million years. Who knows what’s changed since then! Heck it might not even be there anymore, gobbled up by some galactic monster. (Okay, maybe unlikely.)

But M31 is also 220,000 light years, across. If we could see the faint portions that our light pollution covers up, we would see that M31 takes up six times more real estate in the night sky than a full moon, that’s pretty big! All we can see here on Earth however is usually the bright center part, which is a faint smudge on a clear night, about as much as your thumb would cover if held at arm’s length. All told, in the faint parts we can barely see, and smudge that we can, lies one trillion stars, according to a recent survey from the Spitzer Space Telescope. One trillion possible Suns, with the possibilities of their own solar systems, worlds, life forms, beings, consciousnesses, and someone else’s problems. Just in that little, insignificant smudge.

The future of our two galaxies is even more interesting. My Great Aunt Mary will tell you she’s lived to be 94, and never thought she would see this many years. If she could just share the secret to long life with the rest of us and if we could all stretch it out a bit (maybe 4 billion years) more we would see a real treat. M31 and our Milky Way are on a collision course for one another. Despite what you’re picturing in your heads of massive explosions and CNN-style breaking news stories, it will be a rather slow process. The odds of two stars, or anything for that matter colliding, is rather slim. Think of it more like two swarms of bees colliding. Certainly some bees will smack into one another, but not many. It is said that in our galaxy, two stars are about like two houseflies, about 250 miles apart. Space is just ridiculously big.

This is not to say it will be a good time to be here on your 4 billionth birthday. Gravity usually wins, and with each little tug or twist of the gravity from other objects that we will pass by in M31, stars, planets, moons, and everything else in our galaxy will be flung far and wide across the Milky Way, wreaking havoc on whoever is still here. Each object has its own gravity, that’s why we stay near our sun in a pretty steady orbit. If you bring in bigger stars, or more stars that also have their own gravity, well… it’s sort of like driving a girl you just met to a party in your ‘94 Taurus, and every guy there drives a Benz. She’s going to get pulled away.

But fear not! This hobby of ours is not all doom and gloom. Remember it’s a thing of beauty. Looking up is your own little moment of reflection, and a time to consider that just as the stones beneath your feet have been on this earth since it’s beginning to be in that very location as the solid ground you stand on, the stars and galaxies above your head have been through an even greater journey, and shine with a brightness from trillions of miles away, allowing us to literally look into the past, and wonder what is, what was, and what will be on these worlds so very far away.


In the end, this here is a picture of a smudge. Just a smudge to us. To someone that calls it home, it’s an island universe over 200,000 light years wide, filled with one trillion stars. In this smudge, one has to assume that entire wonderful civilizations have risen, and fallen, wars have been waged, some won, some lost, amazing works of ingenuity have been created, and beings beyond our imagination exist, with emotional and spiritual connections to one another that may transcend the bonds of this universe. What’s better – someone in M31 could be saying the same thing right now while looking back…at us. We…are small.