Size – A Matter of Perspective

Is that stick really holding it up??

That’s one big BOULDER!  To find more pictures like this one, try a quick Internet search for images matching “large glacial erratic”.  You’ll pull up more amazing pictures of huge rocks resting in strange places.  Here are a couple more examples:

Madison Boulder in New Hampshire: 23 ft high and measuring 83 ft long and 37 ft wide, estimated to weigh 5,000 tons.

Or the massive quartzite 16,500 ton Okotoks boulders in Alberta, purportedly the large erratic in the world.

Glacial erratics are pieces of rock (usually boulders – larger than 12″ in diameter per USCS) that have been transported and deposited by glacial action and are dissimilar to the soil and rock around them.  According to Wikipedia, the term erratic comes from the Latin for “to wander, roam, or ramble.”  These rocks have wandered and roamed via glaciers to their new homes.

The size of these monsters illustrates one of the amazing things about glacial soils: the HUGE range in particle sizes that ice can transported.  Erratics can be found resting on or in a matrix of gravel, sand, and even clay particles, which are many, many times smaller. Madison Boulder, for example, has an equivalent diameter of about 51 ft.  Compare that with a common clay particle dimension of 0.002 mm.  The boulder is almost 10 million times bigger!!!  Yet both are the result of glaciation.

But are the glacial erratics the biggest in every way?  Consider the specific surface area of the boulders.  Assuming Madison Boulder is a rectangular prism, it’s SSA is a puny 2.4×10-7 m2/g.  For comparison, the clay particles in our class example problem have a SSA of 37 m2/g – almost 200 billion times larger than Madison Boulder!!  Putting it another way, only 34 g (just over an ounce) of our clay are required to have the same surface area as the boulder.

So the way we look at particle size is in many ways a matter of perspective.  Whether something is big or small depends on what property we’re measuring.  Whatever the case, the astounding range of particle sizes encountered in soils is one of the reasons their properties, such as strength, compressibility, and permeability, vary so much.

Ignoring Geology – A Slippery Slope

September 2006:  500,000 – 600,000 cubic yards of soil and rock slid off a slope in Killbuck Twp. PA and covered PA Route 65 west of Pittsburgh as well as a busy railroad line.  The debris took days to remove from the road and tracks, inconveniencing thousands of people and costing millions of dollars.

The slide originated on an active construction site, which was being developed for a large retail store.  After the road was cleared, my old firm got involved briefly to monitor instrumentation that was installed to measure ongoing slope instability.  Retail development of the site was cancelled and slope stabilization was completed in 2011.

So, what happened??

Simply put, someone forgot to think about geology.  The Pittsburgh red beds are a geologic formation in Western PA well-known to cause landslide hazards.  To quote the state Advisory Committee report on the landslide,

Western Pennsylvania is particularly susceptible to landslides because of two natural geologic characteristics: (1) the bedrock land composition, consisting mainly of incompetent mud rocks such as silty shales and clay stones that weather easily;

As with any failure, blame lies with many parties.  However, had the civil engineers planning the development and their geotechnical consultants remembered their local geology, they would have been on the lookout for these conditions and the landslide would likely never have occurred.

PHD Comics takes a stab at the Italian seismologist case

PHD Comics’ PHD-TV just published an “expose” showing its take on the Italian seismologist case that we talked about earlier in the semester, including some new details I hadn’t heard before.  Really interesting.  The link is (watch the beginning through 10:10 for the L’Aquila stuff)

Some of this sounds strangely familiar.  Hmmm???


Can We Fix the System?

The Tonanwanda Town Meeting we had in class was a great learning experience.  I was struck by the unique perspectives that each individual interviewee brought to the table.  Hopefully we all gained greater insight into the complexity of the situation and the way forward for Tonawanda.

Nearly all of the speakers highlighted stronger and more compassionate involvement by the local government as a common need.  While state and federal agencies such as the DEC and EPA must do their jobs and enforce the laws, the people need to feel the support of their towns and communities.  Real solutions to complex, inherently local problems do not come from bureaucracy.  Rather, solutions may come when local officials, who understand the pros and cons of both regulation and industry within the local context, use their power to care for their citizens.  A great example of this was the actions of Berks County Commissioner, Mark Scott, against Exide in Toxics in the Air, Worry on the Ground.  On behalf of his constituents, Scott protested the new permit issued to Exide by the Pennsylvania DEP.  While not it does not necessarily fix “the system,” intercession by local leaders can greatly ease the burden on individuals or community organizations like CACWNY.  As Kimlyn Bender observes in “The Mask,” “Ethical renewal must be a grass roots movement.”

The question still remains, “Is the ‘system’ broken?”  The same question came up again and again in our Tonanwanda Town Meeting.  How are we to think about the system of environmental regulation in our country?  What about the system of science, in general?  The many voices we heard expressed a wide range of opinions on this topic.  Is anyone right?

At its core, the environmental system is broken because all of our systems are broken.  Why?  Because humankind is broken.  We are inherently self-serving.  We have a propensity for wrongdoing as thinkers such as C.S. Lewis and Nitin Nohria have observed.  Borrowing a term from Golding, Bender asserts that our “‘essential illness’ is…rebellion.”  This brokenness is nothing new.  The rich and powerful have always exploited the poor and powerless.  The prophets of the Bible’s Old Testament are filled with indictments against the injustice to which humanity is prone.  In the 8th century B.C., Isaiah writes

Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves.

Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts.

They do not bring justice to the fatherless,

and the widow’s cause does not come to them.

(Is. 1:23, ESV)

From a Christian worldview, we have no hope to fully fix our brokenness or cure our sickness on our own.  Utopia, the perfect ‘system’ will not come about by our power.  The only hope for true renewal comes through humbly asking for help from the God of the Bible.  If we truly want a true solution to our ethical problems, “we must seriously reconsider the necessity of religion for morality” as Bender states.  As a Christian, I don’t hope for complete change of humanity in this life, but rather see my responsibility to humbly serve and love others as I have been loved.  My focus must be making a difference in the lives of those around me, not necessarily “changing the world.”

So how does this all apply to Tonawanda?  It seems that we must not put all our eggs in the basket of “changing the system.”  This sort of utopian goal is ultimately paralyzing, because we see the impossibility of complete change as long as man’s heart is evil.  Rather, action should focus on the real, specific people around us, rooted in love for them. In his book Ethics, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a great example of ethical heroism in WWII Germany) writes that ethics must focus on concrete reality not abstraction.  He shows us that we can’t just sit back and “think great thoughts” (Scheider 2012) about ethics, worrying about how we can change the system.  In the end, we must focus on the real ethical demands before us.  For Tonawanda and other communities, the real change will take place as the local community works together.  Surely we, and they, can seek broader changes where we are able, but we can’t let big goals blind us from real, local actions before us.

Ask yourself – “Are there concrete, specific ways in your scientific endeavors that you can better care for or love the real people affected by your work?”

Drawing a Line or Walking the Other Way?

Multiple times this semester, Oscar Wilde’s stance on morality has come up, “Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.”  I agree with his position to a point.  We must have clear moral standards or we will have none at all.

Yet in my mind, the idea of a moral line is scary.  It is far too easy to creep up to that line, maybe even to peer across to the other side.  While I may remain in “good moral standing” according to my line, I am too close to temptation for comfort.  Standing next to the line, I can easily fall across or perhaps even be pushed over.  I think the metaphor of a moral line can encourage an attitude in which I ask myself, “How close can I get?  How far can I go without doing wrong?”  If this is the wrong attitude, what is the solution?

One solution might be to draw my practical moral line “a long way back,” metaphorically,  from my true moral line.  While this solution might keep me from wrong, it doesn’t fix the underlying attitude.  A better solution is to flee from the evil, or more plainly, just to walk the other way.  Pursue good behavior.  As the book Yanna reviewed advised, cultivate good moral habits.  In short, the best path to take is the one that leads away from the line between right and wrong, the one that scraps the whole idea of trying to get away with as much as I can without doing wrong.  In order to walk the other way, we need to hone our moral lens.  To put it another way, we must strive to intentionally deepen our worldview, rather than passively letting the world shape us.

I’ve found that reading good and varied books is one excellent way of shaping my worldview.  We’ve been given many great suggestions of books to read in this class that can expand our thinking on ethics and our interaction with the world as scientists.  One particularly formative book for me was The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View by Walsh and Middleton.  Obviously written from a Christian perspective, this book won’t appeal to everyone.  However, the authors present a wonderful resource at the end that I believe may be useful to us all. They provide recommended reading lists for people working in nearly every academic discipline.  I would like to highlight two of the books they recommend for engineers.

Small is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher – Considered by some among the top 100 most influential books of the past century, Schumacher artfully shows how economics, science, and technology can be carried out in ways that respect people – realizing that they matter.  It really opened my eyes to the alternatives that exist to our current economic system that generally disregards people.

The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul – (I have to admit that I make it through all of this one.  It is not a light read.)  Ellul calls into question modern society’s deference to science and technology as ultimate things.  He points out how easily humans become subservient to technology rather than using it within proper bounds.  He helps to raise, and maybe answer, the question of whether we should do things in science and technology just because we can.  Is our humanity being sacrificed at the altar of technology?

Big Dig Video Link

For anyone interested, here is a link where the recording of the Big Dig talk from my latest blog can be downloaded.  It will download as an executable file to watch.  Of particular interest to our discussion of the interaction of the public and engineering is the first section on history (5:00 to 23:00) and the personal observations (1:05:00 to 1:07:00).

Engineers in Politics

Mark’s latest post Spock for President 2016 got me thinking about engineers in politics.  Commenting on his post, I ran across a blog entitled, The Little Blue Engineer by John Bachner, the executive director of the American Society of Foundation Engineers (ASFE). The story in this blog was so fascinating given our discussion about engineers, the public, and now public policy that I wanted to share it more widely.  Enjoy!

Street Science at the Big Dig

A couple of weeks ago, the geotechnical program was privileged to have Dr. John Christian speak at Virginia Tech on the subject of Boston’s infamous “Big Dig” project.  Dr. Christian is a geotechnical consultant and former MIT professor who has spent most of his career in the Boston area.  He is currently the chair of the civil engineering section of the National Academy of Engineering.

The Big Dig (more properly the Central Artery/Tunnel Project) was an extremely large and complicated highway project that expanded the freeway system in Boston and at the same time put much of the existing freeway underground.  There were many interesting geotechnical issues on the project in addition to the planning nightmare of doing major construction in an old and very congested city.  The project, however, became most famous for it’s ever-expanding budget and schedule.  When it started in 1991, it was supposed to cost $2.8 billion ($6 billion in 2006 dollars).  The project finished in 2007 at a cost of almost $15 billion. 

Dr. Christian’s involvement came near the end of the project as an independent reviewer for the NAE and later as a private consultant.  He spoke mostly about the history and project management lessons learned from the Big Dig.  While he cleared up many of the misconceptions about the project, Dr. Christian also pointed out a number of ways in which the project teams did their jobs poorly eventually costing the taxpayers money.

One of the fascinating aspects was the influence of state politics and public interaction on the project.  Construction began under a “hands-on” governor who placed a local man in charge of oversight.  Whenever a new phase of the project was about to start, this man would meet with residents in the neighborhood to discuss the next steps and how it would affect the traffic patterns, etc.  Invariably, the residents would bring up issues that the engineers had not thought of, and the street-level plans would have to be revised.  These simple interactions and adjustments kept the community engaged with the project.   The community provided street knowledge that the engineering team could not hope to have on their own.

Midway through the Big Dig, the state administration changed and began to take a very “hands-off” approach.  The community meetings ended.  Instead, as scrutiny of the project grew, a “bunker mentality” developed, as Christian put it.  The project team was not allowed to say anything or communicate effectively with the public.  According to Christian, poor communication between the engineers and the public was one of the major problems that occurred with the management of the Big Dig.

It is fascinating to see how the ‘success’ of a project can come down to things like communication and public perception.

Get Out of Jail Free??

I was intrigued by the discussion of the Italian seismologist’s case in the 10/25 class video. I wish I had been there because I feel like a few important points need to be made, especially with regard to the sentiment that releasing these men would be akin to giving them a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

First, the probabilistic seismic hazard analysis (PSHA) that these men likely engaged in to assess the increased hazard is tricky business, fraught with assumptions and uncertainty. It is quite possible that the they truly believed the increased hazard they calculated was not significant.  Seismic hazard analysis is not intended to assess hazard over a short period of time for the purpose of influencing short term decision making.  Its purpose is rather to provide appropriate seismic criteria for the design or retrofitting of constructed facilities over their lifetime (usually 50+ years). The commission was asked to take this tool and give an assessment in an unusual way.

They were also faced with a dilemma over how their assessment would be used or perceived.  For example assume the probability of a large earthquake on a given day was 0.01% before the series of tremors (These are NOT the REAL NUMBERS). With they additional information provided by the tremors, assume that the probability went up by an order of magnitude. This is still only a 1 in 1,000 chance that a large earthquake will happen on a given day. In the short term, the only thing people could do was to leave their homes for an undetermined amount of time.  Living in an area with very old buildings and infrastructure that has not been designed according to modern seismic standards, they really had few other ways to prepare themselves.  I’m not convinced that many people would have fled their homes even if the commission had reported a slight increase in hazard.

Finally, the hazard being assessed in this case is a natural and not a man-made one. It is not as if a different policy decision could be made to stop the quake if the commission had communicated more clearly.  Also, the commission’s choice to be silent obviously did not influence the occurrence of the earthquake. The opposite is true for most of the cases we’ve looked at in class. In DC for example, the silence/coverup was over a man-made problem and did have direct bearing on whether the hazard persisted.  However, in both the DC situation and the Italy case, the silence leads to people not being informed and not being able to make decisions for themselves.

So I believe we need to be careful when judging the Italian seismologists too harshly. If they are acquitted, I don’t think that they received a scientific “Get Out of Jail Free” card.  While I think that they acted unethically with regard to their communication, this miscommunication does not appear malicious, negligent, or even selfish.  I’ll repeat that they most likely acted well within the standard of practice within their field.  If they hadn’t, the uproar from the seismology community would not have been so intense.  If the ethical norm within a field is utilitarian (I’m not saying I condone that norm), we can and should speak out against that norm, but it isn’t right to bring stiff penalties such as criminal charges against them.  This case should serve as a lesson that teaches scientists, and seismologists specifically, how to communicate more clearly and honestly with the public.

Contrast the Italy situation with the falsifications of Guidotti or Reiber or the CDC.  In these cases, the outright lies fell, hopefully, well outside the norms of their scientific communities.  Their actions are obviously clouded by blatant self-interest.  Yet even there, is criminal action appropriate? I think probably not.  These obvious perpetrators deserve to be disgraced and lose their jobs, positions, and licenses.  Still I believe that criminal action is unnecessary and unhelpful even in this type of extreme scientific misconduct.

Ethics in Earthquake Engineering

The headlines blare:

Italian Seismologists Are Going to Jail for Not Being Able to Predict the Future

Scientists aghast over Italian quake verdicts

Italy Orders Jail Terms for 7 Who Didn’t Warn of Deadly Earthquake

These are just a few of the articles about an interesting ethical dilemma in the civil engineering and geosciences world that hit the news again yesterday.  It is particularly interesting to me since earthquake engineering is a branch of my field of geotechnical engineering.

If you’re not familiar with this story, it starts in 2009 when Italy experienced a series of small earthquakes.  The public began to be nervous because of the increased seismic activity and specific predictions of a larger quake by a local man without training in seismology.  A commission meeting of Italy’s foremost seismologists was called to assess the risk posed by these small tremors.  They decided that the likelihood of a large earthquake was still very small and issued no safety warning.  Some of the commission members gave encouraging messages about the earthquake risk, trying to allay public anxiety.

Six days later a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck, killing about 300 people.

The Italian court just ruled against the seven men in the commission, sentencing them to 6 years in jail and invoking large fines.  The inability of seismologists to predict earthquakes is not being questioned.  Neither are their calculations.  Rather the verdict rests not on the failure of these men to clearly characterize the risk and communicate that risk to the local government and the public (Bergeron 2011).  The scientific community, specifically in seismology, has been in an uproar, calling the decision ridiculous and claiming that it will chill scientific discourse and earthquake research.

In the context of our class, it is interesting to ask – did the seven men act unethically?

It seems to me that the commission acted out of a utilitarian perspective, which lies behind the probabilistic methods that they used to assess the earthquake risk.  From this view, the balance tips decidedly in the direction that the commission chose.  The increased risk of a large earthquake was very small and could not be used to justify the costs associated with evacuations and lack of production for an indeterminate time period.  Their decision in a utilitarian context is quite defensible and moral.

However, the lack of clear communication regarding the increased risk suggests a power differential and an absence of true care for the public by the commission, possibly in the broader seismological community.  Rather than attempting to be responsive to the public’s concerns, the commission white-washed the situation, likely assuming that the public could not understand the subtleties of the science.  In one sense they were right.  Most people have an extremely hard time understand tiny probabilities like 0.01%.  The difficulty of performing a duty, however, does not absolve one from doing it, or at least making an attempt.  As pointed out by seismologist Greg Beroza for a 2011 Stanford Report article, the seismology community must learn to do a better job at helping the public understand these risks.  He and groups of international experts have called for regular “seismic forecasts” in earthquake-prone areas.  Beroza is quoted in the Stanford article, “We have to do our best to communicate what we do know about earthquake probabilities.”  Eventually, the public would get used to understanding these probabilities, just like following the weather, he claims.

The key component of this approach is that an avenue of communication, and with that a relationship, would be opened between the scientists and the public.  Seismologists and other scientists in similar situations must not assume that they should decide how much information the public can “handle.”  In doing so, they may endanger the public, and as this case shows, expose themselves to extreme scrutiny.  Through the lens of care ethics, the commission acted immorally, not in its assessment of the risk, but rather by unclear communication with the public.

BUT does a violation of care ethics, a moral misstep of this sort, justify criminal punishment?  I don’t think so.  Without knowing all the details, it does not seem that they broke the law or even acted outside of the standard of care within their professional community.  The seismology community should assuredly try to learn from the mistakes made by this commission and improve its communication with the world.  It should not have to pay by incarcerating seven of the very men who are best equipped to help situations like this from occurring again.