Since the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, my inner nerd has been nagging. I must listen.
Let’s get the first thing clear. Nothing is off the Richter Scale. It doesn’t go from 1 to 10. It’s open-ended.
Now let’s get the second thing clear: they don’t use the Richter Scale any more. Instead, they use the Moment Magnitude Scale, but since this produces almost the same readings it makes no difference, so everyone still talks about the Richter Scale.
Both scales measure the shaking amplitude of the quake, which is the distance the continental plate moves back and forth, and the scale is logarithmic to base 10. This means that every step in the scale is a multiple of 10, so that a quake measuring 7 on the Richter scale has an amplitude ten times as much as a quake measuring 6. A quake measuring 8 has an amplitude 100 times as big.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. The destructive capacity of the quake is raised to the power of 3?2.
Therefore, a quake measuring 7 on the Richter scale has a destructive power over 30 times that of a magnitude 6 quake.
Put this in context. The Sendai quake was 8.9 on the Richter scale while the recent quake in New Zealand was 6.6.
You might think that the Japanese quake was about 50% stronger, but you’d be wrong. It had a destructive power nearly 9,000 times as much.
The whole thing is a cruel geological joke.
People live on the earth according to the space available. On the Pacific rim, they live on the peaks of submerged mountains, which we call Japan, Hawaii, Indonesia, New Zealand and thousands of others. They settled on the Pacific peaks because they had nowhere else to go and they did their best. But unfortunately, when you live in a place like Japan, a submerged mountain on the edge of one of those gigantic plates that are constantly pushing and shoving against each other, you really are at the cutting edge. Literally.
Japan leads a precarious existence, as we saw over the last few days. Long before it became a technological society, it was being hammered by gigantic, unstoppable forces of sea and earth. Long before it had nuclear reactors to threaten destruction, Japan looked out at an ocean that might at any moment rise up and smash it to pieces. That must surely define the nature of any people.
We all know about the conformist tendency in Japanese society, where the nail that stands up is hammered down – a strength and a weakness in one – but perhaps an inevitable consequence of living in such an uncertain predicament. The Japanese people have developed the capacity to respond to enormous adversity. Japan is the only country in history that has been struck by nuclear bombs, and it responded by becoming, within 20 years, one of the most powerful economies on the planet. That’s resilience.
On the other hand, Japanese society has an awareness of civilisation that we can only envy. Despite all its adversities, Japan’s society has never become as brutalised as ours in the West.
Some people will point out that the Japanese way of dealing with conquered people and captured enemies has been brutal in the extreme, and I won’t disagree with that. This is not a post about how perfect Japanese society is. It has many faults, but the Japanese still understand why tradition is important, unlike us.
I believe that if our land happened to be struck by a catastrophe like the recent earthquake and tsunami, we would not pull together. I think it would be every man for himself, and I think our criminal class would see it as an opportunity to steal and rob like never before.