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KRONOS Vol. I, Issue 4

The Planets as Triggers of Devastating Earthquakes
by John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann

(Walker and Company, 720 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10019; $7.95)

Reviewed by


Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Brigham Young University

Observations of sunspot cycles since the year 1604 produce a peak amplitude period of 11.05 years. Professor Karl D. Wood (Nature, vol. 240 (1972), p. 91) has published a computation of the height of tides raised on the Sun by Venus, Earth and Jupiter for a four-hundred year interval beginning at 1600 A.D., which reveals a peak-amplitude period of 11.08 years and when graphed as a function of time gives a curve which agrees fairly closely, both qualitatively and quantitatively with the observational data. No less an astronomer than E. Opik, whose order of magnitude estimates (Irish Astron. J., 1973) confirm Wood's thesis, regards this work as important and as unduly neglected by astronomers. Professor Wood's son, Dr. Robert M. Wood, using results from celestial mechanics, has derived a theoretical formula (to appear) which predicts the cited 11.08 year period from the motions of the three planets mentioned. Greater accuracy can be obtained by consideration of all nine planets. Dr. E. K. Bigg has demonstrated the influence of Mercury on sunspots. Dr. John Nelson has shown that accurate prediction of radio weather (the correlation of which with sunspots is well known) requires use of all of the planets, including Pluto. The authors of this book, former Cambridge astronomers, note that all nine planets are aligned only once every 179 years, an effect noticeable in the above-mentioned sunspot amplitude observational data. The authors predict that the unusually large amplitude of solar activity in 1982 will affect the Earth's weather through solar flares (which are known to be correlated with sudden changes in the length of the day) and magnetospheric effects. They predict that such effects as resulting alterations in the latitude of the upper-atmospheric jet streams will rapidly produce a deviation in the Earth's rate of axial rotation, which will generate earth tides that will place additional stress on the San Andreas fault.

The authors' thesis, which is not implausible, can be strengthened scientifically by citation of Dr. L. Prescott Sleeper's NASA Contract Report CR-2035, "Planetary resonances, bistable oscillation modes, and the solar activity cycle." Sleeper uses Jose's work regarding the fact that the sun's mass-center executes a rosette-shaped orbit about the entire solar system's center of mass, which produces a jerk-rate at the sun's c.g. whose period agrees with the solar cycle.

In 1857 the Pacific section of the fault between San Bernardino and Parkfield suddenly jumped nine meters relative to the inland section; Dr. Don L. Anderson has shown how the new plate tectonics elucidates the early history of the California fault system. Since 1857 other sections of the fault have slipped about 6 cm per year but the San Bernardino-Parkfield section has been building up unrelieved stresses that are due soon to be released catastrophically in another nine-meter jump. Many psychics have claimed precognition of an imminent California disaster; and some astrologers specify the dawning of the Age of Aquarius will occur "when the Moon is in the Seventh House, and Jupiter aligns with Mars." Astrophysicist Gribbin and astronomer Plagemann predict flatly that in 1982 the alignment of all nine planets will not only inaugurate the Aquarian Age, but "Los Angeles will be destroyed."

Postscript. Dr. K. D. Wood informs me that subsequent to the publication of his paper, he learned of another reference, which is not cited in the book either. A theory highly similar in methodology and conclusions to that of Wood and Wood cited above has already been published, in French, in November 1925 by J. Malburet (Astronomie, vol. 39, pp. 503-575)! Should one say, "truly, there is nothing new under the Sun," or "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose?" Or should one conclude that NASA CR-2035 is the "real sleeper" in this matter?


Reviewed by
Distinguished Lecturer
AIAA, 1975-1976

Although the title of the book implies special interest in Jupiter, this planet would seem to be merely symbolic of any planet which produces an effect on solar activity. The central thesis of the book is that the planets affect the solar activity, which affects the atmosphere of the Earth, which affects the spin rate of the Earth, which affects the stresses in the fault system of the Earth, which will trigger a large earthquake in the most unstable San Andreas Fault in California. In particular, since all of the planets will lie on the same side of the Sun in 1982, that will be the most probable year of the next big California earthquake.

In spite of the fact that the postulated sequence of events described above is so poorly accepted that one reviewer1 called them "one inference piled upon another," the book does have several aspects of merit. In the first place, it is interdisciplinary in its attempt to credibly couple the literature of several different specialties. Secondly, it has the effect of exposing to a wider community several controversial papers which offer alleged correlations. These are particularly Tamrazyan2 (earthquake activity with phase and distance of Moon), Simkin3 (earthquakes and earth tides in the Galapagos), Challinor4 (large earthquakes and sunspot number), Danjon5 (length of day and cosmic ray Flux), Bigg6 (sunspot number and relative position of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Jupiter), Wood7 (sunspot number and tidal height fluctuation due to Earth, Venus and Jupiter) and Nelson8 (alignment of planets and sunspot number). Finally, the subject is certainly an important one: if there is a possibility that celestial objects can give rise to tiny triggering forces for earthquakes, the utility of this information for earthquake prediction should be assessed by competent investigators. The present "earthquake community," based on the majority of its publications, appears to make the a priori assumption that external causes play no role in earthquakes, and therefore is not taking them seriously.

Unfortunately, this book is unlikely to have any significant impact on the present "earthquake community" for several quite legitimate reasons, in the form of genuine limitations of the book:

The foreword by Isaac Asimov immediately sets the stage for a popular appeal as distinguished from an appeal to professionals

There is an apparent fluctuation of accuracy between chapters. For example, the first four chapters, which are largely based on the work of persons at well-known institutions, would seem to be factual, popularized statements of the widely-accepted technical factors which produce earthquakes. However, the next five chapters are treated in the same style and present some information which is specifically not widely accepted, together with some that is.

In referring to some of the more controversial papers mentioned above, the authors do not discuss the other side of the controversies at all; e.g., Tamrazyan's works have been argued to be spurious by Knopoff. The works of Bigg and Wood do not attempt to offer satisfactory physical explanations with numerical plausibility, a problem which is shared by the majority of these controversial papers.

Correlation coefficients are conspicuous by their absence, especially when the correlation is not obvious. For example, a careful study of figure 12, p. 63, which allegedly shows a correlation of earthquakes with the phase of the ocean and earth tides in the Galapagos, surely requires a statistical statement.

Since the book is about earthquake prediction with a focus on California, it would seem natural to compare the trigger stimuli of the past with the earthquakes of the past in California. This is not done in any significant way. One cannot help but wonder if such a comparison does not support the chain of hypotheses, or if there is difficulty obtaining data for meaningful comparisons. In either case, the absence of such information is disconcerting.

The section entitled "Further Reading" at the end of the book has some utility for checking the works alluded to in the text, but would have been both more useful and conveyed the impression of more careful work had these been handled as references in the more conventional manner.

There are some possible fallacies of logic connected with the structure of the argument. The authors first use Bigg6 to suggest a correlation of solar activity with Mercury, Venus,

Earth and Jupiter. (Bigg's data do not effectively support a Jupiter correlation.) Then they use Wood7 to suggest a correlation with Earth, Venus and Jupiter. This logic could have been used to establish the possible importance of planets of large values of m/r3. Instead they abandon that line of potential logic and use Nelson's geometrical alignment work8, which involves additionally Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and even Mars and Pluto, although the mlr3 effects from these planets are trivial. Mars and Pluto are trivial in any theory which requires a calculation involving planet mass.

The final chapter, entitled "Preparation for the Next Great Californian Earthquake," offers only four specific pieces of advice in eleven pages: a) "... encourage the authorities to take action in accordance with reports such as the NOAA study.. . "; b) " . .. move out of San Francisco or Los Angeles... "; c) ". .. take care not to live below a dam. . . "; and d) place " . . . building restrictions within 30 m or so of the fault line."

In spite of the specific criticisms noted above, the book has the value of calling attention to the possibility of incorporating deterministic factors into earthquake prediction to superimpose upon the statistics of the earthquake activity and existing fault-line instrumentation. The importance of planetary effects in causing earthquakes might be small; nevertheless, it may be found one day to have been large enough to systematically assimilate into the increasingly sophisticated science of earthquake prediction. Each link in the authors' hypothesized chain could and should be subjected to a more careful examination, applying conventional statistical correlation tests. If the Gribbin and Plagemann book stimulates some good people to do that, it will have served a good purpose. If it does not, it will be because it is perhaps premature and gives the impression of technical carelessness. This would be too bad, because although it is not very convincing, it is a stimulating book for those who are interested in interdisciplinary creative topics of potentially large importance.


1. Time Magazine (October 7, 1974).
2. G. P. Tamrazyan, "Tides and Earthquakes," Icarus 7 (1967): 59.
3. No specific reference is given to the work of Dr. T. Simkin.
4. R. A. Challinor, "Variations in the Rate of Rotation of the Earth," Science 172 (1971): 1022.
5. A. Danjon, "Solar Flares and Changes in the Length of the Day," C. R. Acad. Sci. Ser. B. 249 (1959): 2254 idem., 250 (1960): 1399.
6. E. K. Bigg, "Influence of the Planet Mercury on Sunspots," Astronomical Journal 72 (1967): 463.
7. K. D. Wood, "Sunspots and Planets," Nature 240 (1972): 91.
8. I. H. Nelson, RCA Review (March, 1951).

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