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A Swiftly Tilting Building
Jamais Cascio, 6 Jul 05

Chris Rorres, a mathematician studying models for the spread of disease at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine, was struck by the way that some buildings in earthquakes topple over rather than collapse, behaving like a capsizing ship. The metaphor was apt, as the tilting and toppling was the result of ground liquefaction, where otherwise solid soil can under certain conditions behave like a liquid. The paper that resulted, Completing Book II of Archimedes' On Floating Bodies (PDF), looked at how different shapes and structures dealt with liquefaction; Rorres' website contains links to visualizations of the results. The latest Discover describes some of Rorres' explorations of buoyancy and the possible new design ideas coming from this observation.

New building requirements for earthquake-prone areas have not yet emerged from this research, but it is an interesting example of how we can come to understand better the needs of the human environment for survival in the a changing natural world -- and the unusual sources from which this understanding can emerge.

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