“Savior” of the Terra Cotta Warriors

Posted in: News

The background to this tale is that I was invited to be Keynote Speaker to the plenary session of the 2013 meeting of the International Association of Engineering Geology and the Environment, which was held in Beijing. Everyone has his price to come out of retirement and the conveners had mine as soon as they offered to pay not only all of my expenses, including international airfare, but also those of my wife, Karen.

My anecdote is:

“After the conference in Beijing, I joined one of the geologic field trips. This one ended in Xi’an, home of the ancient terra cotta warriors, to view the famous land fissures that have unfortunately destroyed parts of this historic city. Xi’an served as the Imperial Capital of 17 dynasties as well as to Chiang Kai Shek’s government before and during World War II, not to mention its being the point of origin of the famed silk route between China and the Mediterranean world that was assiduously traced in reverse by Marco Polo, who wanted to corner the market.

Most of my colleagues on this particular field trip were experts in earthquakes and landslides (from Japan and Europe). Our local Chinese faculty-guide for the afternoon in Xi’an grew slightly impatient with some of their comments, unsolicited suggestions, and self-serving offers to be a consultant. He said, “Yes, yes. Before 1992, we also thought their cause was seismically related. But in 1992, Prof. Hai Yum gave a lecture to our geological college and suggested they may be caused by groundwater flow. We have since proven that this is the case. We can now control their occurrence.” I asked: “How do you spell Prof. Hai Yum’s name?” He said, “H-E-L-M, the great American professor.” I said, “I am that Professor Hai Yum. I mean, Helm.” Tears welled up in this mountain of a man and he embraced me. He spent the rest of the afternoon at my side, ignoring the other members of the field trip.

“It turns out, he was the graduate student/technician who in 1992 was assigned to take me, one-on-one, on this same tour of the fissures and the instruments he had built and put in place to measure earth movement and fissure occurrence and growth. He said my lecture changed his life and saved Xi’an. I recall that the Chinese Academy of Sciences had sponsored a lecture tour for me to a number of universities throughout China in 1992. After being shown the fissures, I had modified my stock lecture somewhat to address the problem faced by my local hosts in Xi’an.

“Later, I expanded on these ideas and wrote a paper called “Hydraulic forces the play a role in generating fissures at depth.” The Association of Engineering Geologists awarded it Best Paper of the Year (1994). Unknown to me, this young man translated the paper into Chinese and distributed it not only to all geology students in Xi’an for now close to 20 years but to other Earth Science university faculties throughout the country.

“The central government has decided recently to build a subway system beneath Xi’an. The main problems faced by the contractors are all related to the fissures. Our local guide has become their consultant on fissures. He has been paid handsomely and says he still consults my paper for new ideas when unexpected problems arise.

“Talk about a seed falling on fertile soil! I did not recognize him because I remember him as being much shorter. He remembers me as being much taller. Some grow with age and some, at least at my age, shrink.”

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