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Hank and Dr. Rebecca Bendick talk about her work in the science of earthquake forecasting, and then Jessi joins the show to show off Sandy the sand boa!

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 (00:00) to (02:00)


H: Hello and welcome to the SciShow Talk Show, that day on SciShow where we talk to interesting people about interesting stuff.  This is Rebecca Bendick from the University of Montana where you are a professor of geoscience, geophysics?  

R: Correct.

H: I don't know what geophysics is.  I know that it has to do with physics and the Earth, that's my guess.

R: That is what it is, yeah.  Actually, as Earth scientists, we live in this very comfortable soothing Newtonian world so--

H: Oh yeah, you don't have to worry about--

R: --most of the physics is like, classical mechanics so how things squish, how things deform--

H: But fluid dynamics, which is just very--

R: There is that.

H: So you study earthquakes a lot.

R: I do study earthquakes a lot and I started out really thinking about them from the classical mechanics and physics point of view.  How do earthquakes work?  Why are faults sticky and then they slide?  What makes the shaking?  How does it actually work?  But now I also think a little bit about what are the implications for human communities.

H: Right, so you've gone from just the purely theoretical, like, fascinating earth stuff to like, oh yeah, people also die so we should think about that.

R: Yes, and you know, those are not mutually exclusive topics, because understanding the physics of what's going on helps to inform you about why do people die and are there things we could do better so that fewer people die and--?

H: We--you know, we hear about earthquake forecasting.  I've seen San Andreas two times now, and I know that that guy, who's the guy, Paul Giamatti, he knows when there's gonna be earthquakes and nobody's listening to him, but I'm pretty sure that that's bull.  But is it like, and also there was those--there were those scientists in Italy a few years ago who like, they got sued or something and they were gonna put 'em in jail because they didn't--

 (02:00) to (04:00)

R: They really did put 'em in jail, at least for a bit.

H: Oh my gosh.

R: Although I don't know how bad--

H: 'Cause that's just going to make you like, not wanna even investigate that line of inquiry.  If, like, okay, if you're gonna send us to jail, we're not even--I'm not a geophysicist anymore.  We're gonna study something else.

R: Except I don't think that physicists and geophysicists work that way, right?  We just want to know how it works.

H: Right.

R: Throw me in jail.

H: Fine.

R: Oh well.  Like, I do my best.  Ideally, you don't get thrown in jail for being wrong, 'cause that's a pretty--

H: Yeah.

R: --bad way to do science and being wrong is a key part about making progress but--

H: But is there--is there--like, are we working toward a place as our species where we kind of have a better idea of when an earthquake's gonna happen?

R: So I think there's actually a kind of like, philosophical fallacy built into this discussion we're having.

H: The question I just asked you?

R: Yeah, which is, it's not binary.  It's not the case that like, either I know exactly what day and time and magnitude an earthquake's gonna be or I know nothing at all about it and it's just hopeless.  There's a huge like, suite of middle ground of understanding there and the way I like to frame it is like, so weather forecasting, right?  Nobody, not even like, your favorite meteorologist--

H: Mark Heyka.

R: Yeah!

H: He's been on SciShow Talk Show before.

R: Yeah, so he doesn't like phone you up and say, yo, like, at 3:04 pm--

H: There's gonna be a lightning strike right in your front yard.

R: Or six drops of rain are gonna fall on your left shoulder, so put a little, like, plastic bag over that.  It's not--it's a probabilistic assessment that says, you know, in this day, there's a 60% chance of rain in the forecast area, right?  And we're all pretty comfortable with that.  The only difference with earthquakes and other natural hazards is that the time scale is so stretched out.

 (04:00) to (06:00)

H: Right.

R: So instead of saying, like, a 60% chance of rain in this day, we typically can say, well, there's a, you know, 30% chance that in the next 50 years there's gonna be an earthquake of this magnitude, and if you think about that in the same way you think about earthquake forecasts, yeah, the timescale is really stretched, but it's still hugely useful.

H: Right.  Are there any spots that are particularly concerning for the next 50 years?

R: Absolutely, right?  So you can take that kind of, let's say, it's not a weather map anywhere anymore, it's a earthquake forecast map and say, you know, here are the regions that are very high risk relative to others.  Here are the regions that are very low risk and like, let's do some things to be prepared.  Let's do the equivalent of bringing an umbrella.  So, Southern California--

H: Right.  We're--yeah, Southern California's your umbrella city.  Umbrella area.

R: Umbrella region, totally.

H: 'Cause there's also a ton of people there.  You gotta have those overlaps, too, like if it's a place where there's gonna be a big earthquake but there's like six people, it's like, eh, sorry guys.

R: Well, it's just less worth investing a huge amount to protect them, which is kind of like, cold-blooded but we are physicists after all.  So you know, Southern California is a place of tremendous concern and it's a place where we're investing in preparedness.  Certain parts of the Himalayas--so the section of the Himalaya just West of the Nepal Earthquake Rupture last spring is an area of very high concern as well.  Those are the two I know best, but you know, many regions have these probabilistic assessments and that should be informing how we plan and prepare.

H: So has this gotten better?  Have we gotten better at knowing and preparing?

R: I would say we have gotten substantially better at knowing.

 (06:00) to (08:00)

So there's lots of cool innovations in earthquake science over the past decade or so.  Everything from kind of fancy fluid dynamics, continuum mechanics, modeling of like, what the shaking will look like in an area, all the way to you know, thinking about how earthquakes interact and trigger each other and integrating other kinds of data besides just seismological data into these probabilistic forecasts.  Have we gotten better at preparing?  I think nominally not.  

H: Really?

R: So it's this interesting disconnect between the science and like, people that live in the place that don't have access to the technical information.

H: Well, I mean, certainly there's infrastructure that's already built, and you can't like, knock everything down and rebuild it, but I feel like in Southern California, buildings are built to be--go through earthquakes.

R: Yeah, I guess in some--to be fair, in some places, people are better prepared.  In other places, not so much.  So they work a lot in the developing world, and I would say, like, that pipeline of bringing science to the village level, to the people that will be in the houses that fall down, is not there.  It should be better.  It should be better.

H: Yeah.  So what are the, you know, you're talking about how, I mean, I guess, I'm gonna try and phrase this in a way that makes sense to me.  The way that the land looks, the way that--what the Earth is made up of effects how an earthquake will travel and so like, can you sort of have a better idea if like, an earthquake happens here then people will and won't be affected, is that the kind of thing you're talking about?

R: Yeah, so we can definitely do that and then even just kind of understanding you know, what does the landscape look like when there are active faults in it?  What kinds of measurements can we use to tell us which faults are active or even to identify places where there are things like blind faults or there--they don't have a really obvious signature at the surface, but you still have like, the fundamental energy budge in the Earth that tells you, like, if things are getting mushed or pulled or you know, wrenched, there have to be earthquakes in that area.

 (08:00) to (10:00)

But if there aren't relative motions like spanning a region, there can't be earthquakes, 'cause you don't have any energy to like, power up that battery to make it happen, and so we have like, lots of new methods for measuring that kind of the thing.

H: Like whether the Earth is actually stretching, passing each other?

R: Totally.

H: Also, rising and falling.  I saw this map of like, how Yellowstone has risen, and I'm just like, that's terrifying.  It's like feet since we started measuring.

R: Well, Yellowstone actually kind of breathes.  So it goes up and then it goes back down and it goes up and it goes back down.  But just being able to measure that with very high precision--

H: Is new stuff.

R: Allows us to like, then go back to the basic physics, nice Newtonian mechanics stuff and say, you know, what kinds of forces are being applied to make this object, which happens to be our neighborhood, say, deform in this way, and what's going on at that--and then, therefore, what are the implications of that, right?  So when--before volcanic eruptions, like, mega-volcanoes and like, movie-level Armageddon happens, you have to like, inflate that magma chamber and there are a ton of cool geophysical tools now that would detect something like that, so we could all take a weekend in Seattle and it'd be cool and come back and--

H: For real?  Like, if the magma chamber starts to fill up, there's like--on the scale of a year, there would be, like, concern?

R: Sure.

H: Oh.  Have there been situations where we've had a little bit of warning?

 (10:00) to (12:00)

R: Sure, totally.  Particularly for volcanic systems.  Those are quite well instrumented these days, and sometimes there's a surprise so like, if a volcano say, is like, emitting poisonous gas like happened in Japan recently, that's hard, 'cause that's kind of a small effect, mechanically.

H: Right.

R: But if like, an earthquake, I mean, a volcano's got like, a magma chamber that's filling, you can definitely see that.

H: Right, like Mount St. Helens style?

R: Yeah.  I'm pretty sure we'd catch that.

H: Okay.  Well.  I feel a little bit safer having had you to talk to.

R: I'm not protecting you.  I'm just assuaging your fears.  

H: Well, do you want to meet an animal that's gonna come visit?

R: Yes.

H: Okay.  

R: I love animals.

H: Right.  Thank you.  Jessi, where are you?  Alright.  Well, it looks like we've got some kind of, I don't know, is this a physics experiment, a geophysics experiment that you've brought us?

J: That would be a very poor physics experiment, 'cause I don't know physics.

H: Okay, well, then what is it then?

J: It's a--I mean, we can do an animal experiment, we can see how long it takes you to find the animal.

H: Oh, let's do that.

J: Okay.  

H: Is it gonna hurt me?

J: Uh, it shouldn't.  

H: Shouldn't.

R: Just stick your face in there and see.

H: That's just sand.  I think I touched something.  

J: Do you wanna try this too?

R: Uh-uh.  

J: You touched something.

H: I did.  Is it gonna be mad at me?

J: Oh, no.

H: If I--there's something right here.  It's hard.  

J: What do you think it is?

H: I think I know what it is, 'cause I think I've seen this animal before.  Oh, hello there!  How'd you get in there?  I wanna see the process of--oh hello.  Hi.  Oh my God.  There's a lot of snake in there!

J: Isn't that amazing?

 (12:00) to (14:00)

She was hiding--I know, which side is her head?  This is Sandy, and she's a Kenyan Sand Boa, and she does have a very confusing body plan here.  Her head and tail are supposed to look the same.  They are able to fool and confuse the predator that might be going after her, it might take them a little bit longer to figure out which one is her head, and that can give her time to escape.  

Alright, so, I want you guys to feel her.

H: Did you say sand boa?

J: Sand boa, yeah.  

H: So you're a constrictor?  Can I pick this up? 

J: Yep.  Alright, so go ahead and touch her body first and then go all the way back to her tail.  

H: Oh, ooh, ahh.  It's like--

J: Isn't that cool?

H: It's like, got some kind of armor back there going on.

J: Yeah.  Almost feels like a (?~12:51) or a file back there, and that's going to help make sure that if something does grab onto her tail, it's going to be harder for teeth to get ahold of that or talons or beaks, and these guys are really, really good at burrowing, and we can put that sand back up here if we want to see if she wants to go down in there.  

H: Yeah.

J: Sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn't, but she can show off her features, her awesome--oh, she's going, she's going right in.  

H: Oh.  Oh my.

J: But I want you guys to imagine for a second going face-first into the sand.

H: Yeah.

J: Like, what would be the problem there?

R: Your eyes.

H: Well, you can't do that.

J: Sand would get in your eyes and it'd get in your nose and it'd get in your ears and it would, like, scratch your skin, and we have a big flat head, right, or kind of round and it wouldn't be able to go into the sand very well.  So she has a really cool shaped head.  It's actually shovel shaped and her upper lip is over her bottom lip, so when she goes in, no sand is going to get in her mouth.  Her nostrils are very small and shaped so that she can go in very easily and also so that it won't go into her nostrils.  She has no external ears, no snakes do, and she has no eyelids.  She has caps instead of eyelids, so nothing, so she's made to be able to go face-first into things.  

 (14:00) to (16:00)

H: I mean--

J: Isn't that cool?

R: She is a physics experiment.  

J: I guess.

H: I do not actually know how you generate the force to shove yourself into the sand.  It was like Scrooge McDuck jumping into his--

J: Into the coins!

H: Into the coins.

J: Yeah.

H: Yeah.  I would think that it would be fairly hard, but no, you just--

J: No.  She gets right in there.

R: That was fast.

H: That was fast.  

J: When she goes in there, she's gonna turn just a little bit and so then she can pull the rest of her body in.  So she pushes with her body and then when she gets in there, she pulls with her body.  Alright.  All that work, all that work.  

H: All that work, but you're coming right back out.

R: She's optimized for that.

H: This is just a very nice  snake, doesn't care at all.

J: Oh, she is so, so chill.  She's fairly old, too.  Got some sand on your head.  Okay, so take a look at that head.  See how that works?  It's nice and shovel shaped.  Upper lip goes over the bottom lip.

R: She even looks like Scrooge McDuck.

H: Oh yeah, you've got an overbite.

J: Pretty cool.  Alright, so, I wanted to bring out some snake sheds as well and this is the shed of a corn snake and you can just feel that.  

H: Thanks.  You have so many of these, you don't even care.

J: Now--yeah, there's so many.  Now feel this one.  

H: Ohh.  I thought it was gonna be more substantial or thicker, but it's in fact, softer.

R: Yeah, it's a very fine--

J: Yeah, it's thinner, smaller scales, and there's not as much of bumps between them, so it's going to help her streamline her so she can go down into substrate easier.  So there is a kind of a misnomer.  These guys are called sand boas but they don't actually live in duney sand like this, and I brought the sand just so you could see the effect really easy of how she burrows down in there.  These guys mostly live in other soils that's going to retain the shape of her burrow better, so she doesn't have to constantly be digging new burrows.  So she'll make her own burrow at home and then she'll kind of hang out in there.  She's an ambush predator, so she'll just wait until something comes along.

 (16:00) to (18:00)

I mean, she's a pretty heavy bodied snake, so she's not gonna move very fast.  She doesn't--she just sits and waits and then she strikes, grabs it, and will either constrict it there or she'll pull it under the sand and suffocate it.

H: Oh yeah.

J: Yeah.

H: Alright.

J: Luckily they're not big enough to eat us, 'cause that would be terrifying.

H: No, is this a pretty big sized--?

J: This is as big as they get.  They get about 22-24 inches, and she's a female.  The males are gonna get sm--are gonna get smaller, top out at 20 inches, but she is, you know, we rescued--we've had her for ten years.  We rescued her ten years ago and she was an adult, almost an adult, when we got her, so I'm guessing at least two years old, so 12 or older and they live about 15 years, so she's a very old snake.

H: Adult.  You look very healthy.

J: Would you like to hold her?

H: Sure.  

J: She doesn't move around very much, so just--

H: Yeah, there's not a lot of--

J: Support her whole body.

H: Not a lot of grabbing happening.

J: No, no, she doesn't.

H: Like with other snakes I've held, where they're just like, I will hold on to you.  No, this is just--

J: Yeah, nope, just flops.  She's a floppy girl.

H: So, does she shed more than a normal snake?  I think maybe more abrasion?  No?

J: No, no, she sheds about once or twice a year after she becomes an adult.  These guys are really interesting because they have a very slow metabolism and they can actually go almost an entire year without eating anything if food scarce, but normally they probably eat, as an adult, every two weeks.  

H: And why would someone want this snake as a pet?  

J: You know--

H: It's just like, I will lay here.  

R: Low maintenance?

J: Low maintenance?  They can, they can?

H: You just wanna cuddle her.

J: You can.  The disadvantage is they're mostly under the sand most of the time, under their substrate.  They're hiding away.

H: And like, without substrate would just be a sad bored snake.

J: Yeah, they're very into burrowing, so they can have other kinds of--I mean, you could put 'em on newspaper, but you know, probably not for a very long time, like, paper newspaper, reptile carpet.  You should give 'em something to burrow in.  You can give 'em like, wood shavings or soil or play sand, but uh, they enjoy different textures.

H: She decided to be active now.

 (18:00) to (20:00)

J: She's adventuring now, yeah.  Yeah. 

H: Where are you going?  Oh, snakes are so weird.  

J: I love, I still--I know how it works, I know how the mechanics work, but still just watching them move--

H: It seems so--

J: Without seeming to move.

H: --impossible.  Yeah.  You can feel their weird little muscles grabbin' on to each other.

J: Yeah.  

H: Just strange.  Where are you going? 

J: I'm going to go someplace warm and dark.

R: Where I can dig.

J: I'm a burrower.  Do you wanna hold her?  

R: Sure.  

H: Look at this long tube.  Tube animal.  Oh, yeah, the ripples.  I'm sorry you can't feel the ripples at home, but it's weird.  Ooh.  Ooh.  You got to her (?~18:59).  Sorry, sorry, sorry, snaky.  I forget what the snake's name is.

J: Sandy.  

H: Sorry, Sand--oh, that's pretty easy.  Sorry, Sandy, for the--poke.  

J: So Sandy, she wasn't you know, nothing terrible happened to her.  She belonged to someone who ended up getting pregnant and  didn't think that they had the time to take care of a snake.

R: Even an inert one.

H: Even the laziest one.

J: But you know, to each their own, and so she came and lived with us and she grew a little bit and she's just, I don't know, she's just a wonderful ambassador.  She's so calm and relaxed.

H: You can just have somebody put their hand in the sand and not--

J: That's for like, advanced animal people.  We bring Sandy out for people that are scared of snakes, because she doesn't look too snaky.  Like, she's just short and wide, and she just lays there, and so people--she doesn't dart around or move around much, and so people are more inclined to, you know, reach out and give her a little touch and go ooh!  

 (20:00) to (22:00)

H: Yeah, okay.

J: Yeah. 

H: Weird.

J: Yeah.  I like her eyes, too, how they just camouflage so well.

R: They're very--they're really--

H: They're so small.

J: Yeah.

H: I guess probably doesn't need a lot of sight?

J: No, she's just gonna be hanging out in her little dark hole, and then she's gonna smell when that prey comes along and then she'll just jump out and strike at it.  I wonder if this one has eyes on it.  That's the bottom.  

R: Oh yeah!

J: We do!  

R: That is cool.  

H: Little eye scales.  Yeah.

J: The front of the face came off, but yeah.

H: Gotta get those.

J: Yeah.  They're tiny, though.

H: So strange.

J: Isn't this so weird?  And when a snake sheds, they shed inside out, so this is actually the outside of her skin, that would be the inside, so it would be like taking your sock and then grabbing it from the top and pulling it inside out, that's how a snake is going to shed but they do it out their mouth area.  

H: What if we shed our skin and like, twice a year, we were like, just don't bug me.  I gotta take--just gonna be reading a book and just--just shuffling out of my own skin.

J: I'm just slowly gonna just--just take a week--how would you lay and maneuver, 'cause some animals turn upside down and pull out this way.  Some like, hang from a branch and like, gravity pull them out, and then these guys will like, rub against things.  

H: You know, I bet we'd have like, special salons where you go.

J: Shedding salons.  

H: You go like, pay $50.

R: My question is, would you save the skin?  Would you save your own skin?

H: No!  

J: That's gross.

H: Definitely not.  Probably someone would make like, a beauty product of it.

R: It feels like a token of your love to like, give someone your own skin.  

J: This is the shed I first met you in.

H: Oh wow, yeah.  There'd probably be some weird ritual around it.

J: We should grind it down and make it into, like, a little--

H: Yeah.  Put it in your Gatorade.

J: Well, you know, we kind of--gross!  I just--actually.  Um.  We actually do shed, so--

R: Just one cell at a time.

H: We shed lots of skin, yeah.

J: We don't do anything weird with that now.  

H: No, we don't, we just sweep it up.

J: We just throw it away.

 (22:00) to (23:11)

R: (?~22:04) nesting.

H: Just be amazed by how much of it there is.  Well, I have been--it's a pleasure to have you on the show to inspire such conversations, Sandy.  Thank you, Rebecca, for--

R: Yeah, my pleasure.

H: Alleviating my fears and Paul Giamatti had me so stressed out.  This is much better.  

R: Paul Giamatti's brand is stress though. 

H: Basically it is.  Yeah, they're like, who can we get that's just gonna be really freaked out but also look potentially knowledgeable?

J: Just a little sweat, all over.

H: Thanks, Jessi.  

J: Yeah.

H: Thank you, Rebecca.  

J: Sure.

H: And thank you for watching this episode of SciShow Talk Show.  You're great.  If you wanna watch more of it, it's on where you can additionally, if you want to, subscribe to our channel.  Jessi, you can subscribe to her channel at, where you can see all kinds of crazy animals that she takes care of.

J: Yeah!  Yeah!

H: Thanks for watching.