Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

This Week's Puzzler

This is a fancy hotel, but they don't have unwired Intertubes and I have to check out by noon, so I won't be able to say more about the conference until later. Meanwhile, I've had some more random neural firings.

The earthquake in Italy was not particularly powerful but the destruction was nevertheless horrific. I presume this is because most of the structures that collapased were very old and not up to modern standards. We've all seen those ancient Italian town centers and villas in the movies and maybe the Food Channel if you go for that sort of thing: medieval buildings that antiquity has rewarded with a charm that can't be faked. Unfortunately they are largely unframed masonry, so give them a shake, and down they come.

This got me to thinking. What is the oldest human edifice that is still in regular use, whether as a dwelling, a workshop, a place of worship? It must be enclosed from the elements and still authentically in use, so the Parthenon and the Coliseum and all those famous monuments of classical antiquity don't count. Nobody is worshipping Athena or Apollo any more and even if they did, the rain would fall on their heads. Tombs don't count either. The pyramids are still useable to store human remains, but not living people.

One might start thinking in terms of Southern Europe, what is now Turkey, and Jerusalem, but maybe that's too eurocentric. Maybe it's in China, India, Nepal or Tibet. Tropical climates and relentlessly encroaching jungle aren't conducive, certainly. I'm inclined to think that places of great religious significance might have a survival advantage as well as a good chance of being well built in the first place. But maybe the answer is surprising, say a stone hut in Norway where a blacksmith still plies his trade.

Anyway, it's not an easy question to google, and thinking about it may yield some insights.

Back on topic tomorrow, most likely.


kathy a. said...

interesting question. i'm a californian, and our very oldest buildings [e.g., the missions] are only a couple hundred years old. it is stunning to see so many old buildings on the east coast; unimaginable to think of much older buildings in europe and elsewhere.

this article blames poor building practices in modern buildings, and a lack of seismic retrofitting in older buildings, for the huge destruction in italy:

a similar quake here would cause some damage, but not catastrophic. building codes require seismic safety. many older buildings have been retrofitted to provide better safety in the event of "a big one," meaning a quake of significantly higher magnitude than the one in italy.

by comparison, the loma prieta quake of '89 was a 6.9, and affected the heavily-populated urban SF bay area. there were 63 deaths, 42 of which occurred when a double-deck freeway collapsed during rush hour. in other words, despite the widespread damage one would expect from a pretty big quake, relatively few people died because their homes or offices fell down on them.

like my state's previous big ones -- 1906 is famous; the 1971 sylmar quake; the 1994 or so northridge quake -- the loma prieta was followed by a lot of attention to making things safer. bridges, overpasses, and buildings by the thousands were retrofitted. building codes were improved again. regular people learned to strap their water heaters, bolt their bookshelves to the wall, etc.

robin and i were just talking about this. we both were present for the 1971 quake and the 1989 one.

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