A  WAVE  OF  CONFUSION

MANILA, January 7, 2005 (STAR) DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia  -  Please tell me what is so difficult to understand about the paragraph that follows:

Geologically, the Earth’s surface is like a spherical jigsaw puzzle where each piece is a tectonic plate. These plates move constantly against each other and in times that we cannot predict, they break and one plate could suddenly slip, which in the case of the recent 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Sumatra is the Burma plate. This "slip" caused the ground to go down, an event we refer to as an earthquake. When these earthquakes originate under the sea, water is pushed up in a swell, triggering massive waves that we call tsunamis. Like all waves, these will break ashore.

I ran this explanation against other write-ups of physical phenomena in a book of "how’s" and "where’s" designed for eight-year olds. I found that my tsunami explanation was at least simply stated, if not simpler, so that curious children will have no trouble understanding how the tsunami occurred. I also asked my nephew Nigel, 11, why he thinks the tsunami occurred and why he thinks it happened in the places they did and not elsewhere. He answered that maybe it is due to underground volcanoes that erupted in that part of the world. I asked him why he thinks it occurred there and not here or elsewhere and he replied that maybe because the ones we have underneath are not erupting now. Not bad a venture of a reply for an 11-year-old bothered by his aunt with a serious question during his holiday break.

This is why it bewildered me to listen to a nun on local TV news claim that the Virgin Mary had signified these events to her and that an even more destructive one would happen in our very own archipelago the coming year. I would have left her to her sentiment and personal claims had she not continued to say that the recent tsunami that has taken the lives of over 150,000 innocent lives in 12 countries, leaving the survivors with indescribable grief and loss, was a kind of warning, a call for mankind to be holy. I find it self-defeating to set on a quest to cross this impossible chasm between religion and science that is why this column seldom comments on religion but when someone publicly crosses it by explaining the meaning of a large-scale physical phenomenon based on her own religious beliefs, taking us all with her, this science column finds it in order to question the integrity, not to mention the logic of her claims.

Natural catastrophes have been occurring long before humans appeared on Earth. Archaeological records show that it was not until about five million years ago that hominoids, the ancestors of Homo sapien, even came to be. Homo sapien, the species to which we modern humans belong, has only been around for 100,000 to 150, 000 years. The magnificence and beauty of the Earth as we know it now is due to the long chain of natural events that have occurred in its 4.5 billion years of evolution and it is not over. This long natural chain of history includes tumultuous events like massive earthquakes, tidal waves, and extreme freezing and warming of temperatures.

Scientists speak of five great mass extinctions that have occurred in the Earth’s history, long before humans came to be. They are called "mass extinctions" because they refer to the large-scale death and disappearance of not only individual organisms but also their kind and these were all due to catastrophic natural events. The first occurred about 439 million years ago in the Ordovician-Silurian period caused when sea levels dropped as glaciers formed, then by rising sea levels as glaciers melted. Second was in the Late Devonian period, about 364 million years ago. The third, which scientists thought was the worst ever, decimating 95 percent of all species, occurred around 250 million years ago, straddling the Late Permian to Triassic Period caused by either meteor impact or volcanic floods. The fourth happened during the end of the Triassic Period about 199 million to 214 million years ago, most likely caused by immense flows of magma from beneath the Earth’s crust, which occurred in an area that triggered the opening of what we now know as the Atlantic Ocean. The last one, the most famous one because it killed dinosaurs, among others, occurred during the Cretaceous-Tertiary Period about 65 million years ago, most likely caused by the impact of a huge asteroid that created the Chicxulub crater now hidden on the Yucatan Peninsula and beneath the Gulf of Mexico.

Evidence overwhelmingly suggests that destruction has always been a part of the Earth’s 4.5-billion-year ongoing creation and there is no reason why humans, with their single-digit, thousand-year-old beliefs, should blame themselves for it. Human history contains more than enough details that we can blame on ourselves and each other, without including tectonic activity. There is nothing to be taken personally in the movement of the Earth’s crust. The same Earth we call beautiful now is the way it is because of what it has gone through and is continuing to go through, in birth and rebirth, creation and destruction. That is the mystery. That is the gift.

There are also those who have directly linked the tsunami to the predominant religion of the nations affected and even to the supposedly high abortion rates in those countries. To them, I recommend that you read the science books of your children to see what really causes a tsunami. It will not only help you think clearly and rouse you from your laziness of thought, but it will also unburden the innocent hearts of those whom you think are being punished with a tsunami by some divine power because they do not subscribe to a moral code of your preference. It is not just idiotic to say that those people deserved the tsunami; it is also cold and cruel. It is always a good thing to be sorry and make up for the unjust things you have done. It is always a good thing to strive to be decent or to some, perhaps even be "holy." It is always a good thing to reflect on the human condition and see the tragedies that befall us as a test of our humanity. These things are always good to do in any season, regardless of the earthquakes, storms and tidal waves that come our way. Natural disasters ignore differences between the religion, politics, social status, ethnicity, age or gender of their victims. But so does the expression of our deepest humanity. After the tsunami, witness strangers regardless of color, religion or politics, help each other by reaching out with their healing hands, words, thoughts and sustenance, across the globe. While entire landscapes have disappeared, it is sparklingly clear what remains: our humanity. It is what the tremors and waves can never take away.

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Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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