effects on Earth
By Dr. Kavan
The gravitational effects of the Sun, Moon, and
other planets in our Solar system on Earth are very
simple to compute.
Any A-level Physics student should be able to do so.
The Gravitational Force is proportional to the
Mass/(Distance)2 and the resulting tidal Force is
proportional to its first derivative i.e.
Mass/(Distance)3. When dealing with such large
quantities, it is more convenient to express Mass in
units of the Mass of the Earth (approximately 6x1024
kg) and distance in Astronomical Units (AU) which is
the average distance from the Earth to the Sun
(approximately 150 Million km). Distance between the
Earth and Planets varies depending on the location
in orbit, but to maximise the possible effect of
planet use minimum possible distance between Earth
From this Table you see that the Tidal effect of the
Moon is 2 to 3 times that of the Sun and more than
10,000 times the combined maximum perturbation of
all of the Planets, which will be lost inside much
larger tidal variations caused by the Sun and the
Moon. Note the importance of distance. The Sun is
about 27 Million times as massive as the Moon, but
exerts less than half the tidal effect, since the
Sun is 400 times more distant than the Moon. This is
very well understood, simple physics, which any
scientist should understand.
Energy of earthquakes is measured by magnitude known
as the Richter scale. A unit increase magnitude is a
Tenfold increase in energy of the earthquake. For
example a magnitude 8 earthquake is a 1,000 times
more powerful than magnitude 5.
Recently in the news, there have been attempts to
relate Planets to earthquakes. The Daily News on
April 9 reported that a Peradeniya University
Geologist had predicted an earthquake larger than
five, between April 5 and April 8. They reported the
success of this prediction after 7.1 earthquake of
April 7. What they did not report was that there
were five earthquakes larger than five during those
days and 10 during the four days before and 12
during the four days after from the same area. After
a great earthquake like the 9.0 in Japan on March
11, there are many smaller after-shocks for many
weeks. Earthquakes are not uncommon. Recorded each
year on average there is one earthquake larger than
eight, 16 larger than seven, 150 larger than six and
about 1,500 larger than five.
There were no earthquakes above six as predicted
by the Geologist between April 10 and 20 and
published in the Times of India on April 9. There
has been little press about the failure of the
predictions of which I am sure there would have been
a lot, if it had randomly come true. None of the
previous claimed success has a documented recorded
of being predicted before the event.
In an interview by Nalaka Gunawardena with this
Geologist, published in online in groundviews.org on
April 19, he had claimed to have found a statistical
correlation of 136 major earthquakes over last 100
years, with the planetary alignment of Mars,
Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus within a small angle,
with the Sun and Moon close to the same line. He had
not found any direct co-relation with the Sun and
There are few papers in the refereed scientific
litereature which discuss the possible tidal effect
of the moon and sun on earthquakes. For example
there is a 2001 paper published by Hu Hui and Li
Xiaoming of Yunnan Observatory in China in Natural
Hazards, Volume 23, Numbers 2-3, pages 339-348, with
some possible correlations of earthquakes with the
approximately 18 year cycle of the earth and moon’s
orbit around the sun. They state that the effect of
planets is negligible, as I have shown above.
In the interview with Nalaka, the Geologist had
also suggested magnetic interaction with the molten
core of the Earth. Magnetic fields are complex, but
also decrease as inverse of the (Distance)3.
Relative to their mass, the magnetic fields of the
massive Gas Planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and
Neptune) are much smaller than the less massive
rocky planets with a molten core like Earth and
Mercury. The magnetic fields of other planets as the
Earth, are more negligible than that of their
gravity. Earthquakes are clearly not caused by
alignment of solar system planets, whatever
misleading statistical correlation anyone appears to
find. Any correlation that was seen must clearly be
an error in the statistical analysis. To put it in
more understandable terms, a bridge which can handle
heavy trucks, does not collapse by dogs or ants
walking across it.
Prof Max Wyss of the University of Alaska in his
2001 review paper in Tectonophysics Volume 338,
pages 217-233 says To make significant progress in
earthquake prediction research, we must learn how to
conduct rigorous science in a field where amateurs
use a slipshod approach with the dream of helping
The Nation article on March 27 said the 136
earthquakes analysed measured over 6 on the Richter
scale. Since there have been about 15,000
earthquakes larger than 6 in the last 100 years, it
is not clear how the subset of 136 was selected.
When I spoke to the Geologist briefly over the phone
on April 19th, he said, a random subset over
selected regions. An analysis of over 15,000, will
be statistically more than 10 times better and also
unbiased, than a selected 136. That should have been
done, before speaking to the press, which
unfortunately resulted in scaring the public living
along the coast of Sri Lanka, from a peaceful
Sinhala and Thamil New Year.
Predictions when published by an academic who is
an associate professor of a reputed university are
obviously taken seriously by the public who may not
understand the details of the Science. Statistics
and Astrophysics are popular topics, since it is
understood by even smaller fraction of the public.
The speakers to the Press themselves probably
unaware of the limits of their popular understanding
of modern Astrophysics they abuse.
I hope the Sri Lankan University authorities will
put in place a proper referee system to ensure that
such nonscience is not released to the press, and
harm the reputation of the University. The Minister
of Disaster Management has said that legal action
will be taken against astrologers, academics or
others who make predictions on natural disasters and
thereby cause panic among the people (Sunday Times
April 17). I hope the press in all local languages
will also show restraint particularly as we approach
2012 and all that Mayan nonsense sweeping across the
Internet, and even leaking to the local print and
(The writer is an Astrophysicist who has done 25
years of research in many leading universities in
the USA, Canada and Australia, after a Physics
Honors degree from the University of Ceylon)
|NASA probe shows Einstein
theory was correct
WASHINGTON (AFP) –
Huge objects in the universe distort space and time
with the force of their gravity, scientists said
recently after a NASA probe confirmed two key parts
of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
“Einstein survives,” chuckled Francis Everitt,
Stanford University physicist and principal
investigator for Gravity Probe B (GP-B), one of the
US space agency’s longest running projects.
The physics experiment was more than four decades in
the making, and finally launched in 2004.
“In Einstein’s universe, space and time are warped
by gravity. The Earth distorts the space around it
very slightly by its gravity,” he said, explaining
the Jewish physicist’s theory devised nearly 100
years ago, long before the technology existed to
“Imagine the Earth as if it were immersed in honey.
As the planet rotates, the honey around it would
swirl, and it’s the same with space and time,” said
“GP-B confirmed two of the most profound predictions
of Einstein’s universe, having far-reaching
implications across astrophysics research,” he said,
predicting the mission would “have a lasting legacy
on Earth and in space.”
The satellite carried four advanced gyroscopes to
measure geodetic effect, or the warping of space and
time around a gravitational body, and
frame-dragging, or how much a spinning object pulls
space and time with it when it turns.
If Einstein’s theory were disproved, the “gyroscopes
would point in the same direction forever while in
orbit,” NASA said in a statement.
“But in confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of
relativity, the gyroscopes experienced measurable,
minute changes in the direction of their spin as
they were pulled by Earth’s gravity.”
The probe’s measurements came remarkably close to
Einstein’s projections, according to the findings
published in the journal Physical Review Letters.
The satellite, which wrapped up its data mission
last year, was first envisioned in 1959.
Leonard Schiff, head of Stanford’s physics
department, and George Pugh of the Defence
Department, dreamed up a satellite that would orbit
the Earth and test the notion.
Everitt joined the project in 1962, followed by NASA
“Forty-one years later, the satellite was launched
into orbit about 400 miles above Earth,” NASA said.
The technologies created in the development of the
gravity probe have been used in making precise
global position systems (GPS) and in gauging the
background radiation of the universe.
“That measurement is the underpinning of the ‘big
bang theory’ and led to the Nobel Prize for NASA’s
John Mather,” NASA said.
Hundreds of university students and dozens of high
schoolers have worked on the project, including
famous names such as Sally Ride, who was the first
American female astronaut in space, and Nobel
Laureate Eric Cornell.
By Shabna Cader
The second annual LIRNEasia Disaster Risk Reduction
Lecture was held last week at the BCIS Auditorium,
BMICH. The lecture was also held in commemoration
with the 25th anniversary of the Kantale Dam
Disaster that occurred in April 1986.
Sri Lanka has 12,000 small dams, and 350 medium and
large dams. Dams have been in existence since the
age of the kings that ruled the country. They
believed that not a single drop of rainwater need be
wasted, instead used for the benefit of the people.
Today, like in the ancient days, the dams provide
thousands of people ample water supply used for
agricultural needs, domestic purposes, etc. However
it must be acknowledged that if the dams are to be
used to provide beneficial support and aid in the
daily lives of the people, they in return need to be
well preserved, observed, analyzed, and maintained.
If Mother Nature is not taken care of, she will not
take care of you. In the past few months alone, this
has proved to be accurate and true, as climate
change and natural disasters have plagued various
parts of the world, as well as larger parts of Sri
Lanka. The month of January saw more 200 small dams
breach, causing immense damage and destruction
during the heavy rainfall and flooding. Lives were
lost, property damages and livelihoods destroyed.
And what have we learned?
The Kantale dam breached 25 years ago; survivors
still struggle to live a normal life but yet, they
continue to live in fear. They fear the dam would
breach yet again, as there are signs and evidence to
leaks. They have not been trained to protect
themselves against flooding and possible breach of
the dam, no evacuation drills, no safety measures
have been taken, no crisis management organized. The
people in the areas of dams are not prepared for
breaches or possible flooding. Why not?
Dr. Aad Correlje, a professor from the Kingdom of
the Netherlands was present at the lecture. He gave
a wonderful insight as to how the Dutch have
prepared themselves, well over the years, to sustain
or even if possible, avoid flooding.
“The Netherlands is a low lying country and often
flooded by water if precautions and safety measures
are not taken. There is a great history of flood
protection. What needs to be done is that the right
people need to take responsibility, have an
assessment and a plan on how to prepare or prevent a
“Our prevention policy includes disaster management,
evacuation and preparedness, sustainable flood proof
planning and building, and prevention of flooding
(reduction of possibility of flooding). There needs
to be a sound governance of flood risks, maintenance
and crisis management. Assessments and structures
brought up should and need to address the right
scale from the right scope. We cannot always blame
it on the climate change – climate change is only
one of the several factors demanding enhanced flood
protection,” said Dr. Correlje.
As mentioned, many Sri Lankans’ lives depend on dams
as much as they fear them today. There is a great
urgency to protect both the people and the dams.
Most dams have malfunctions and cracks, leaks that
could be threatening to livelihoods nearby, and
barely any operational improvements.
Unfortunately Sri Lankan engineers do not have the
expert knowledge to ensure hundred percent safety.
It is crucial however that something is done, before
it is too late. No one can truly predict when
disaster can strike. No one can say if the dam will
stand as it is tomorrow or breach in the next hour.
If they cannot be maintained and well preserved,
let’s assume that it is the people who need to be
prepared for the worst. Yet again, nothing has been
done to provide or ensure risk management or
evacuation drills. The people are powerless so it is
vital that dam safety emergency plans are prepared
and appropriate warning information and maps are
There needs to be qualified, trained and experienced
personnel who will engage with emergency response
agencies as well. The same goes for persons who
engage in dam design, construction, operation and
maintenance. They need to regularly review the dams,
conduct inspections and make records of these that
should be assessed by professional teams who could
possibly or probably predict if anything hazardous
could occur. Unfortunately Sri Lanka is not equipped
with the most current technologies of detecting a
possible breach. As of now, they are not detected by
devices; instead by visual inspections alone which
has proved to be inadequate in the past. This means
that actions need to be taken as soon as possible;
locals need the support to ensure that all those who
work with regard to preservation, observation, and
maintenance of dams.
Chairman of the Sri Lanka National Committee on
Large Dams, S. Karunaratna who was also present at
the lecture, highlights the very malpractices.
“All major dams in the country are interconnected,
have several usage patterns and no operational
improvements. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is not
entirely equipped with proper engineers who have
expert knowledge and are able to provide methods of
precautions to ensure safety. The panel has selected
32 major dams to currently work on – to inspect,
observe and also renovate if needed, to assure
safety. It is a very challenging program that we
have embarked on, but by the end of the programme we
hope that we may be able to protect the lives of the
people who live in the very areas of the dams,” he
As spontaneous and encouraging as that sounds, he
further mentioned that it would take 30 years to
complete the project. The two biggest questions that
arise are, why would it take that long and what has
this panel been doing for the past 25 years after
the breach of the Kantale dam? Is this fair to the
people who have lived for over two decades, hoping
for some change and precautionary measures to be
taken? With the recent heavy showers and damage and
destruction to homes and property as well as the
loss of a few lives, what do the Disaster Management
Centre and National Committee on Large Dams hope to
Stay tuned for more information in the coming weeks.