Science Café to Offer Earth-Moving Experience

March 13, 2017

Real estate markets occasionally slide, eroding value. But when the bottom literally falls out, there’s not much foundation to build on. The resale value of a multimillion-dollar estate with four bedrooms, two baths, and a remodeled kitchen covered in 50 tons of mud at the bottom of a hill isn’t much.

“California provides an example of what can happen when we build on soil primed for failure,” says Jim Hambleton, civil and environmental engineering, and an expert on soil-machine interaction.

Following years of drought, a series of storms dumped 10 to 20 inches of rain on parts of the Golden State this January, leading to landslides, sink holes, and the near failure of California’s second-largest reservoir, the Oroville Dam.

Hambleton will bring guests below Earth’s surface to explore the ground under our feet at this month’s Science Café, taking place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on March 22 at the Firehouse Grill, 750 Chicago Ave., in Evanston.

“We use the Earth as a foundation for our infrastructure, a medium in which to grow food and a commodity from which to extract valuable resources, and so the science of how materials respond under loading is critical in these processes,” says Hambleton. “When distributed across the world’s population, each individual effectively moves several hundred times his or her body weight each year. And yet this is nothing compared to ants, who move hundreds of times their weight in soil every day.”

There’s a lot left to learn about and from these tiny insects, he says.

“Ants are judicious about the particles they move as they identify which pieces of sediment are loose,” Hambleton notes. “They also don’t fight against nature; if there is an obstacle, they work within the situation to overcome it rather than forcefully attacking it.”

Hambleton’s presentation will discuss some of his newest research, which aims at learning from nature’s civil engineers to improve our own earthmoving efficiencies.

“As humans, we create these massive, diesel-powered machines that can plow through the Earth and move it however we please, but ants have truly optimized the process in a way we have yet to replicate,” says Hambleton. If we pay attention to the ground, and the tiny workers in it, we may one day design a robot that can “act as an ant, sensing materials in real time and changing course to enhance its approach.”

Jim Hambleton