Numbing numbers

As the horrid death toll from the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami continues to rise, we are confronted with a barrage of numbers: many tens or even a hundred thousand dead, nine on the Richter scale, ten-meter waves. Do we really know what these figures mean? Part of the problem is simply definitions: who knows what the Richter scale is? Crucially, it's a logarithmic scale measuring the "size" of an earthquake, which means that an earthquake at 9.0 on the Richter scale is more than a hundred times more powerful than the magnitude 6.8 Loma Prieta quake in the San Francisco Bay area in 1989. The best description I've heard in the media is that this quake is as powerful as all the quakes in the last five years put together. And it's certainly a strain on our minds to comprehend the idea that 100,000 people may have perished in the disaster -- it was already difficult enough at the initial estimates of what we can now call "only" 10,000.

And on the off chance that there are readers who haven't seen this sort of thing (via Crooked Timber):

Red Cross/Red Crescent Donations: If you’re so moved, there’s information on making donations to the American Red Cross here (including a link for secure on-line donations). The British Red Cross page is here. Also: CNN’s list of organizations accepting donations. And here’s the link for Oxfam UK’s appeal .

Also, you can donate directly through amazon.com in the US, and the BBC is organizing an appeal in the UK