Quakes can’t be predicted. But unassuming Californians can now be alerted that a significant temblor has hit and it’s time to promptly “Drop, Cover, and Hold On” before their world starts shaking.
On Thursday, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the state’s Earthquake Early Warning System, which means Golden State denizens from the northern Redwoods to the Salton Sea can be alerted of imminent shaking in two major ways.
The first part of the system is the new, free MyShake app (available on iOS and Android phones) which will notify the app’s users about nearby quakes. The second element is Wireless Emergency Alerts which automatically blasts out text messages (the same way you receive an emergency Amber alert) after a quake has been detected. Both alerts, which can give people seconds to tens of seconds of warning, receive quake information from the U.S. Geological Survey’s innovative, sensor-based, ShakeAlert system.
The new MyShake app, developed at the University of California, Berkeley, is a significant, though still prototypical part of California’s quake warning plan. It works, “but it will improve over time,” Richard Allen, director of UC Berkeley’s Seismological Laboratory, said at a press conference Thursday. “We want every Californian to download the MyShake app,” added Mark Ghilarducci, the director of California’s Office of Emergency Services.
“There’s not really a downside,” John Vidale, a seismologist and professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Southern California, said of the app. “Conceivably it could tell us before the shaking starts,” said Vidale, who was not involved in creating the app but has tested earlier versions of quake alert apps.
What’s more, the app uses smartphone sensors to detect significant earthquakes.
“In addition to alerting you about impending shaking [MyShake] turns your phone into an earthquake sensor,” noted Wendy Bohon, a geologist at the . Bohon also had no role in developing California’s early warning system.
As the app’s UC Berkeley creators note online, “Our testing has shown that most modern phones in use today can record earthquakes down to magnitude 5 within 10 km of the epicenter.” (A magnitude 5 is a moderate quake “felt by nearly everyone” and will result in some broken dishes and windows, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.) MyShake’s software will get progressively better at identifying quakes as more people use the app.
For now, text messages will be sent out to Californians who feel quakes with an intensity as low as 4.5, a light quake felt by many people indoors. But the MyShake app will send alerts at even lower quake intensities of 3, said UC Berkeley’s Allen. This will match the current alert thresholds of the separate ShakeAlertLA app, released in January exclusively for Los Angeles denizens. The app angered many Angelenos in July when they felt a level 3 quake but didn’t receive alerts. At the time, the L.A. app was set to notify users of shaking intensities of 4 or higher.
Finding the best alert levels for both text and app systems will require tweaking. “It will not be static,” Governor Newsom said. And there’ll certainly be ample opportunity for finding the ideal alert thresholds, as there will be plenty more quakes.
The big takeaways
Any “shake alert” received via text or the MyShake app is only a warning, albeit a potentially major warning.
“The most useful thing is to have your head up [figuratively] and know what’s happening,” said Vidale. “We want people to do sensible things.”
That means dropping to your hands and knees, covering your head and neck with an arm (ideally crawling under sturdy furniture if available), and holding on until the shaking stops.
“ShakeAlert can save lives and reduce the chance of injuries by giving people time to take protective actions like ‘Drop, Cover and Hold on’ before shaking from an earthquake arrives,” said Bohon. “It will also potentially give them time to move away from dangerous or hazardous locations.”
But this early warning system comes with a major limitation, emphasized Bohon. If you’re very close to an earthquake’s epicenter, you may not receive an alert before shaking, or violent shaking, begins. “This is because the system needs time to determine the earthquake’s size and likely shaking levels and it also needs time to distribute the alert,” she said.
Most Californians live in quake country, so they should already have their plans together. “People should be sure to continue to prepare for earthquakes before they happen,” said Bohon. “The few seconds to tens of seconds that ShakeAlert may provide is obviously not enough time to take critical actions like making an earthquake kit, securing heavy furniture to the walls, bolting the home to the foundation, etc.”
When future quakes hit, Californians now have a new tool in their co-existence with a volatile, incessantly moving earth.
“Should it work well?” asked Bohom. “Hopefully, yes. ShakeAlert is an innovative technology that will improve over time.”
These Rats Drive Tiny Cars—for Science
If you give a mouse a cookie, it’s gonna ask for milk. And if you give a rat a tiny electric car, it’s going to drive it to pick up Froot Loops. For that they can thank Kelly Lambert, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Richmond, who has trained rats to operate custom “rat-operated…
If you give a mouse a cookie, it’s gonna ask for milk. And if you give a rat a tiny electric car, it’s going to drive it to pick up Froot Loops. For that they can thank Kelly Lambert, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Richmond, who has trained rats to operate custom “rat-operated vehicles” (you can’t just order a car made for rats on Amazon, after all).
The rats climbed into what is essentially a plastic container on wheels. They stood on an aluminum plate and steered by touching bars to complete a circuit. Lambert and her colleagues put the rats through driver’s education, setting them in a box and placing the Froot Loop award at the opposite end of the arena. They worked with two groups of subjects, one that lived in “an enriched environment, kind of a Disneyland of sorts for rats, so they had different stimuli to interact with,” says Lambert, while the other group was kept in a standard, drab lab enclosure.
Interestingly, only the former group was able to learn to drive, suggesting their environment plays a critical role in a rat’s ability to learn new skills. And by testing the drivers’ feces for stress hormones, the researchers were able to show that scooting around in pursuit of Froot Loops was relaxing for the rats, suggesting they may be getting enjoyment out of driving, the opposite of humans stuck in traffic. Rats, after all, have been previously shown to enjoy play, at least when it comes to learning hide-and-seek.
To learn more about what all this means for science’s understanding of rat behavior, and even potential implications for human learning, we sat down with Lambert in the video above.
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The EPA’s Anti-Science ‘Transparency’ Rule Has a Long History
Sometimes a bad piece of legislation doesn’t die, it just returns in another form—call it a zombie bill. In this case, the zombie is a bill that morphed into a proposed rule that would upend how the federal government uses science in its decisionmaking. It would allow the US Environmental Protection Agency to pick and…
Sometimes a bad piece of legislation doesn’t die, it just returns in another form—call it a zombie bill. In this case, the zombie is a bill that morphed into a proposed rule that would upend how the federal government uses science in its decisionmaking. It would allow the US Environmental Protection Agency to pick and choose what science it uses to write legislation on air, water, and toxic pollution that affects human health and the environment.
Republicans tried to pass this type of legislation from 2014 to 2017, with titles such as the Secret Science Reform Act, followed the next year by the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act. The idea, which on the surface seems like a good one, was to force the EPA to use only research that is publicly accessible, reproducible, and independently verified.
Critics, including much of the US scientific community, complained it would throw out nearly all epidemiological studies in which patients give consent to use their medical information but not their names, to protect their privacy. That would mean limiting studies on the effects of air pollution on lung disease or toxic chemicals’ effects on Parkinson’s disease and cancer, for example. Scientists also argued that some data, by its nature, can never be reproduced. That would include, for example, the collected particles spewed out by erupting volcanoes, or oil-stained creatures from the Deepwater Horizon spill, or tissue samples taken from soldiers exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
Despite years of hearings and committee votes, these bills never passed the Senate. The Democrats took over control of the House in 2018, and so current EPA administrator and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler isn’t going to Congress a third time. Instead, the so-called science transparency legislation has been resurrected in the form of an EPA regulation that doesn’t need congressional approval.
The proposal stirred controversy in 2018, when the Union of Concerned Scientists obtained emails revealing that EPA scientists were excluded from giving input on the rule, which would also allow the EPA administrator to exempt any studies from the transparency requirements on a case-by-case basis.
“This is not being driven by scientists at the agency, it’s being driven by political staff who have spent their careers trying to reduce the authority that the EPA has,” says Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy. Halpern noted the proposal has been championed by chemical and tobacco industry groups that have for years sought to reduce the EPA’s regulatory powers.
The Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science rule would require that scientists disclose all of their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could consider an academic study’s conclusions, according to a draft copy obtained this week by The New York Times.
At a hearing of the House Science Committee on Wednesday entitled Strengthening Science or Strengthening Silence?, EPA science adviser Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta was put in the difficult position of defending a regulation she either wasn’t able to discuss or didn’t seem to know about. Although Orme-Zavaleta has spent 38 years at the agency and is its top scientist, she isn’t reviewing the new rule and couldn’t answer many questions from the congressional panel.
Although the rule only applies to future regulations and is not retroactive, Orme-Zavaleta didn’t know if it could be used to overturn existing health standards when they come up for periodic review every few years. She also didn’t know how the EPA administrator would grant exemptions to the requirement that data from studies used to justify EPA rules have to be made public. “That’s currently being discussed and debated,” Orme-Zavaleta said in response to a question from US representative Bill Foster, a Chicago-area Democrat and former nuclear physicist.
Representative Bill Posey (R-Florida) complained that previous air pollution studies were based on “secret” science and praised the new transparency provisions. “The EPA has used data from secret studies to push a particular political agenda to regulate fine particulate matter or airborne dirt. That would hurt the agriculture industry. There would be no way to test the data because it was secret. I have a problem with that.”
In contrast, Sean Casten (D-Illinois) pleaded with Orme-Zavalata to join the ranks of the anonymous Ukraine whistle-blower and go against the Trump administration by publicly refuting the EPA science rule. “Look, this is painful,” Casten said. “We are sitting here in a moment where none of this assault on science happens if people in your shoes stand up. If and when you stand up, we have got your back. But please stand up.”
Orme-Zavalata did not respond to Casten’s statement.
A panel of experts including a toxicologist, a pulmonary epidemiologist, a neurologist, and a psychologist all testified about the importance of transparency and reproducibility in science. None of the experts—including the one expert invited by the Republican side—said they supported the new EPA rule. The proposal was recently submitted to the Office of Management and Budget and will be made public sometime next year for a final round of comments before going into effect.
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How Lasers Work, According to the World’s Top Expert
Whether you’re losing your mind at a Pink Floyd tribute show or playing with your cat, there’s hardly a situation that wouldn’t be made better with a few lasers. “Optical masers” were first described by physicist Charles Townes in the late ’50s and since then they’ve come to define modern life. They’re used to scan…
Whether you’re losing your mind at a Pink Floyd tribute show or playing with your cat, there’s hardly a situation that wouldn’t be made better with a few lasers. “Optical masers” were first described by physicist Charles Townes in the late ’50s and since then they’ve come to define modern life. They’re used to scan groceries at the checkout, read DVDs, guide missiles, perform surgery, and even to produce nuclear fusion.
But if you’re not exactly sure what lasers are or how they work, you’re not alone. WIRED caught up with physicist Donna Strickland, whose work with lasers earned her a Nobel Prize in 2018, and challenged her to explain a laser at five levels of difficulty. Strickland’s explanation at the expert level made total sense, but she also explained it to a child—you know, just in case.
“A laser is a way to get light to be a single color, going in a single direction, with all the waves peaking at the same time so the intensity can get very high,” Strickland says. Unlike light from the sun, which emits photons at all the visible wavelengths, lasers focus their energy on one specific wavelength. This allows them to be powerful enough to cut through steel and precise enough to shave the hair from your skin.
But now that you know what a laser is, you’re probably wondering how it works. The answer, says Strickland, is that bouncing energized photons between two mirrors can cause them to sync up, producing a nice strong beam of a single color. This, of course, leads us to the next natural question about lasers: What is the most powerful possible laser and are we anywhere close to building it?
Strickland has an answer for this and all your other burning questions about lasers. Check it out in WIRED’s new video. You can also watch the next episode (about sleep) on WIRED’s free app for Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, and Amazon Fire TV.
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