The Physics of Disaster

Since 2009, the Seine-Saint-Denis County Council has been backing “la Culture et l’Art au Collège (CAC)”. This project is based to a large extent on the presence in class for several weeks (40 hours) of an artist or scientist whose mission is to engage the students in a process of research and creation.



Project Manager:
Florise Pagès


Designing and reproducing collapse, landslides and ruptures, and generating waves… using mock-ups, constructions and installations, the students learn to model various physical aspects of natural phenomena. This ambitious programme sheds new light on the work of certain physicists and opens up fascinating relationships between calculations, force, energy, materials and DIY.

On a small scale
The physicist presents geophysics, his/her field of research, to the students, and then, using videos of volcanic eruptions, avalanches and tsunamis, addresses the scientific issues involved in these phenomena: how do you predict a disaster? How do you prepare for it? A series of very simple devices (a cardboard vortex cannon, an avalanche made from a sloped surface and icing sugar, the upward movement of a cyclone using a rotating plate) is shown to the students, which they then try to reproduce.

A concrete example
The students then choose to work on a very specific example – the Tohoku-Oki megathrust earthquake that occurred on 11th March 2011, the huge 9.1-magnitude tsunami in Sumatra, etc. and they gather together all the parameters to be taken into account in order to recreate identical conditions (the same coastal and undersea topography, slope effect, wave height, type of crack, etc.). Preparatory sketches are completed, from the equipment inventory (basins, tanks, sealed vats, etc.) to the measuring instruments (camera, captors, software, rulers, etc.), and the students review each step and record it on a specification sheet.   

Banana peel
The class then moves on to the construction phase, checking that each step has been carried out properly, making corrections and filming its trials. The students experiment by adjusting the parameters to obtain results that show the links between cause and effect: the seismic wavelength is proportional to the energy dispersed, the speed of the landslide depends on the contrasts of soil density, a rigid substance subjected to shear stress can become elastic, etc. What are the effects of the microquake reproduced using a bloc of granite mounted on a spring when the friction surface becomes as smooth as banana peel?      


Participating Schools:
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Noisy-le-Grand
- François Mitterrand, Noisy-le-Grand
- Jean Jaurès, Pantin
- Colonel Fabien, Montreuil



The Physics of Disaster
The Physics of Disaster
The Physics of Disaster