xkcd’s “Frequency” Will Make You Feel How Fast the Earth Is Moving

How long do you need to watch to see a magnitude 4 earthquake?

(xkcd via imgur)

Randall Munroe, the man behind the webcomic xkcd, has a knack for putting big concepts (moneydepththe ocean bottomtime and space) into context. In his latest, "Frequency" (reproduced above), Munroe takes abstract-seeming ideas—like "five babies born every second”—puts these recurring frequencies side-by-side and manages to make those dry factoids visceral.

Look—babies are being born on this planet faster than your heart is beating.

Or, look, there's an earthquake. And there's another, the lurching motion of a slipping fault. Earthquakes are incredibly common, but most are too small and weak to feel. Every three beats of your heart, roughly, an earthquake is happening somewhere on the planet. (Which makes those tiny earthquakes induced by fracking or Seattle Seahawks fans seem slightly less impressive.)

But there's one entry on Monroe's chart that never seems to blip: “Earthquake (Magnitude 4).” That got us wondering: how long would you need to wait to see it flash?

According to the United States Geological Survey, there are roughly 13,000 earthquakes each year with a magnitude from 4.0 to 4.9. In fact, a magnitude 4.1 quake hit South Carolina just this past weekend. At 13,000 quakes and 525,960 minutes in a year, you'd need to sit around for around 40 minutes to see the Earthquake (Magnitude 4) box flash.

Monroe's chart does a couple of things really well: it puts events in relation to one another—heartbeats to marriages, births to deaths—but it also helps explain more esoteric events. Sharks are plucked from the ocean with surprising frequency. Earthquakes are incredibly common.

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