Inquiring Minds
Illustrations by Jim Paillot

In this issue:

Rx for Quakes
Got Curd?
Dear Diary

Rx for Quakes

The irony inherent in earthquake research is, of course, that you hope what you are studying won't happen. "Earthquake researchers like to say that in the ideal earthquake, no one dies and there is minimal damage, but it's a good enough shake to remind people that the threat is always there," says Pedro de Alba, professor of civil engineering. "And that preparing for the threat is important."

De Alba has spent a lot of time in earthquake country—he was born and raised in Mexico and did his graduate work at UC Berkeley. On the West Coast, people know that a big earthquake could happen at any time. There is, in fact, a 62 percent probability of a big one in San Francisco in the next 30 years.

In collaboration with the California Strong Motion Instrumentation Program, de Alba has built a field laboratory on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. There, in a series of deep holes, instruments will record how the ground amplifies movement during an earthquake.

In his UNH laboratory, de Alba is studying how saturated sand "liquefies" when it is shaken by an earthquake. "It temporarily loses a large portion of its strength," says de Alba. "The result can be a high-velocity slide." Such landslides can be catastrophic—over 600 people were buried by slides after an earthquake in El Salvador in 2001. The research may help city planners predict where it's not safe to build. Last year, de Alba worked with mechanical engineering professor Barry Fussell and four of his students on a project that tested different types of sand to see how density affects the distance liquefied sand will travel.

While we don't think of the East Coast as an area at risk for a major earthquake, there have been several, including one in central New Hampshire in 1638. Recently the state asked de Alba to research historical ground failures related to the 1727 and 1755 earthquakes near Cape Ann. It turned out that one of the best sources was ministers' notes from the 1700s. "In their sermons, they would cite the earth breaking open as an indication of God's displeasure," de Alba says. "But in the appendices, they would be more scientific. One described a sand spout in a garden south of Newburyport. We were able to locate the property, and the owners were kind enough to let us do experiments on the soil."

So, could there be another earthquake in New Hampshire? "For the most part, earthquakes happen at the fault boundaries between plates in the Earth's crust, or at weak spots in the plates themselves," de Alba says. "Faults in New Hampshire are called 'dead' faults because there has been no evidence of movement for at least 20,000 or 30,000 years. But it's all quite random—the only thing we're sure of is that it's hard to predict where those weak spots are."

Got Curd?

It is monsoon season in Sri Lanka in 1975, and Deborah Winslow, a Stanford graduate student in anthropology, has just accidentally run her VW bug down a muddy slope into a ravine. After living in the area for two years, she has acquired certain useful skills, like the ability to reconnect a transmission to the universal joint in 10 minutes, dressed in a sari. But this is a different sort of a problem. Suddenly a small boy appears. "Would the lady like an elephant?" he asks in Sinhalese. The lady would. And in less time than it might take to call AAA back home, an elephant and handler arrive on the scene, ready to extricate car from mud.

Being an anthropologist means "camping out among your data," says Winslow, now an associate professor of anthropology at UNH. She has been camping out in the same Sri Lankan village off and on for the past 30 years, living in a thatched hut and taking baths in public under cover of a sopping sarong. Her grit and long attention span have resulted in a unique view of the village's economic evolution.

Sri Lanka has seen many governmental changes over the years, including colonialism, socialism and open-market capitalism. Winslow experienced the post-colonial socialist phase when she lived in the place she calls Walangama, Sinhalese for pottery village, for about three years in the 1970s. Residents, including Winslow, received weekly food rations, and the government introduced an austere "market substitution economy," imposing strict limits on imports. On one occasion a store manager drove 12 miles to Winslow's hut to beg her to return a ream of paper she had just purchased. That paper would supply the local schools for an entire month, he explained.

Winslow's study follows the economic tightrope the villagers have followed as they strike a balance between their own goals and outside forces. A pivotal moment came in 1948, when the new government offered to assist the villagers with expanding pottery production instead of giving them the additional agricultural land they wanted. Because farmers remain ensconced at the very top of the Sri Lankan caste system while potters are near the bottom, the villagers naturally preferred farming.

Walangamans pragmatically accepted the offer. Their subsequent success in the pottery business has led them steadily up the economic ladder, even as they remain on a relatively low rung in the caste system. Prosperity has enabled them to soften some of the remaining effects of being in a low caste—instead of being relegated to the rear of a higher-caste temple, for example, they built their own.

Ingenuity, initiative and hard work have also helped. An industrious Walangaman approached new water buffalo dairies in the late 1980s and got a contract for the village to provide 10,000 buffalo curd pots a month. At the time, no one in the village knew how to make them. Today the village is making as many as a million per month.

Perhaps the most powerful message of Winslow's research is the importance of taking the long view. "It's myopic to look at a single program," she says. "Their lives go on long before and after one tiny intervention."

Today the villagers have new houses with several rooms, tile roofs and electricity. A number of residents have gone on to college. Winslow and her husband, UNH computer science instructor Israel Yost '91G, have established a scholarship fund to help poor children stay in school. A group of young men made donations that more than doubled the fund, thus, in typical Walangaman style, seizing an opportunity and making it their own.

Dear Diary

Typically, when researchers want to gather data on adolescent subjects, they approach local schools and ask students to fill out surveys. Family studies associate professor Corinna Jenkins Tucker, in collaboration with associate professor Kristine Baber of the UNH Adolescent Project, has come up with an innovative approach that involves the use of diaries to probe an understudied part of adolescent life: sibling relationships.

Twenty-one families, each with two adolescent children and a background similar to the general population, agreed to participate in the study. The researchers first interviewed each adolescent to get a read on self-esteem by asking them about their confidence in academics, athletics and peer relationships.

Then they gave each participant a diary and asked them to write in it for 10 minutes every day for a week. Since Tucker, working with master's candidate Abby Winzeler, wanted to focus on conversation between the siblings, they specifically asked the adolescents to list in their diary three topics that they had discussed with their sibling that day.

Tucker says the goal was to find out if the siblings talk to each other, and what they talk about; and if the frequency and content of those conversations are linked to their sense of well-being.

The researchers found that yes, siblings do talk to one another, roughly twice a day. What they talked about most were extracurricular activities, like sports and hobbies; entertainment, such as music, television and film; and academics—their grades and school assignments.

"When we linked the topics to their self-esteem, we found that if they talked more about school, they reported lower athletic competency. If they talked more about extracurricular activities, they felt more confident about sports, and when they talked more about entertainment and less about extracurricular activities, they felt better about school," Tucker says. None of the topics was associated with confidence in their peer relationships.

Two findings were a surprise: how little they talked about family issues, and how much they talked about music, movies and TV. "It was a huge topic of conversation, which really reflects its increasing significance in the lives of adolescents," Tucker says.

"In the past, researchers have focused primarily on adolescent relationships with parents and with peers, but our study shows that siblings rely on each other for help with emotional issues, social skills, societal norms and communication skills," she says.

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