Tuesday, May 13, 2008

China Quake

In case you're living under a rock, ridiculously powerful earthquake hit Sichuan province in China yesterday. The quake was recorded as a magnitude 7.9, which is simply absurdly powerful. Not only does the peak acceleration increase on a log10 scale as the Richter magnitude increases (energy increases are even more dramatic) , but the original equipment used to define the Richter scale doesn't even function properly during quakes this large. Alternative scales are more rigorous, but the general public is familiar with Richter magnitude so some extrapolation work-arounds have been developed.

Modern earthquake engineering codes require structures to be designed to withstand (at minimum) earthquakes that, based on statistical analysis of nearby faults and by physical models of the surrounding terrain, are expected to occur every 50 years. More important facilities that are expected to be full of people (e.g. schools, stadiums, etc.) are designed with an enhanced factor of safety and critical response facilities (e.g. command and control, hospitals, etc.) have a safety factor that is higher still. However, in areas with poor oversight of building, many old buildings, or inexperienced engineers/builders, structures may not meet these requirements. I'm not aware (yet) as to what expected return period this particular earthquake had, but my suspicion is that, if it wasn't larger than the 50-year quake, it was right near the raggedy edge.

With such a powerful quake hitting a densely populated area, I should be prepared for reports of massive casualties. Still, watching the news report last night of parents dig through the collapsed rubble of a 3-story girls' school looking for 900 missing children caused even my black, ironic heart to break.

It is in times like these that one tends to reflect. I am the beneficiary of (a small number of) research dollars from a larger pool directed at advancing the robustness and reliability of our civil structural systems. Am I putting that funding to it's best, use? I don't have the answer for that right now. As a Ph.D. candidate, the question is rather moot; I am not terribly empowered to select the precise course of my research endeavors, but soon enough I will graduate and gain a much larger degree of autonomy. How do I strike a balance between work that is sexy and fun (and fundable) and work that genuinely protects lives? How much overlap is there between those categories? What is the proper balance between big, pure research projects and more practical endeavors that are, perhaps less ambitious, but might have a greater chance of producing concrete results? Those are too big of questions for one morning or one blog entry. Something to ponder...

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