The potential outcomes of University of Calgary associate physics professor Joern Davidsen's research are nothing short of astonishing.
In one multidisciplinary program, his team hopes to make progress toward accurately predicting large earthquakes; forecast seismicity induced by hydraulic fracturing; and make significant contributions to drug development related to neuronal diseases such as epilepsy.
Davidsen has brought together a team that includes seismologists and brain researchers to work together on widely differing problems based on one common property of physics.
"Both seismicity and neuronal activity share similar dynamic behaviours in the sense that one event, be it an earthquake or a spike in a nerve cell, can trigger other ones," explains Davidsen. "These can in turn trigger other events and so on. The dynamics can, thus, be thought of as a triggering cascade. This is despite the fact that the underlying physical triggering mechanisms in both cases are vastly different."
Davidsen says his team is working on probabilistic formulas for forecasting earthquakes which would give the expected rate of earthquake activity in a given region over a given time period. However, predicting specific locations, times and magnitudes of seismic activity is not scientifically possible currently and is likely not even a realistic goal. The properties of triggering cascades can be used to forecast seismic activity after large earthquakes, i.e. the aftershock activity following a large main shock.
In the case of epilepsy, Davidsen says the triggering cascade leads to seizures corresponding to highly synchronized brain activity. One of the open questions in epilepsy is whether and how this is related to the structure of the network of neurons in the brain.
One of the team's biggest recent breakthroughs came in the area of seismicity.
"One of our recent main achievements was to show that the dominant physical mechanism that is responsible for the occurrence of aftershock or earthquake triggering is static (permanent) stress changes," says Davidsen. "Our results—which are based on a sophisticated data analysis as well as model simulations—are significant and unexpected since earlier studies indicated that dynamic (or temporary) stress changes might be responsible. This finding is important because it allows us to build better forecasting schemes for aftershock activity."
Davidsen's work has received funding through the Discovery Accelerator Supplements Program. Some of his key contributors include geoscience professor David Eaton, Michael Colicos with the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, and Georg Dresen at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. The grant money will largely go toward stipends for students working on the research including postdoctorates, graduates and undergraduates.
Source: University of Calgary