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Engineering from the Earth to the Moon

What do the U.S. Air Force C5A transport plane, bomb shelters, Chicago’s 100-story Hancock Building, moon dust, the UMass Geotechnical Engineering Program, and the entire network of our country’s railroad beds all have in common? The answer is Ernest Selig. Selig, an emeritus professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, has worked on projects involving all the above, and he’s also done much, much more.

Think about it. As only part of his storied career, Selig served on the team that engineered the front landing gear on the C5A, researched bomb shelters for both private homes and missile silos during the Cold War, worked on the subsurface foundation of the Hancock Building, did pioneering studies for NASA in preparation for the first moon landing, started the Geotechnical Engineering Program at UMass Amherst, and now, at the age of 78, is compiling an estimated 20,000-item encyclopedia containing over 45 years of information he has developed on the complex engineering of railroad tracks, railroad beds, their surrounding subsurface components, and maintenance.

In fact, Selig might have done a host of even more amazing things except for a debilitating condition that first surfaced as a muscle tic and quickly changed his life. In 1995 he was still working at UMass at the tender age of 65, when he noticed something strange in one finger.

“A twitch in my finger turned into Parkinson’s,” he recently recalled. The disease caused him to retire earlier than he had planned, but he has remained professionally active to this day.

Nevertheless, the whirlwind pace he had set during his first 45 years as an engineer was a tough act to follow. While finishing his undergraduate degree during the 1950s at Cornell, his emphasis was really mechanical and industrial engineering and business. That explains how he ended up on the mechanical engineering team that worked on the C5A, a plane we know so well at UMass Amherst because these huge jets have been circling over or near our campus once every 11 minutes for the past few decades.

Then Selig moved to the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago for his graduate work, and many circumstances, including the Cold War, began his focus on soil mechanics. “The primary focus of the research being done in our group when Dr. Selig arrived was the behavior of structures under dynamic loads,” said Professor Keith McKee, Selig’s supervisor at IIT. “To be more specific, how buildings are affected by a nuclear explosion.”

Selig’s growing expertise in soil technology led to many fascinating projects, including the study of bomb shelters and the job in which Selig and his colleagues at IIT saved the Hancock skyscraper from a fate worse than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. During construction, developers noticed a mysterious ground shift within the subsurface foundation, and they called in the IIT team to use their “dynamic tester” and investigate the source. Selig and colleagues found that the concrete columns in the foundation had separated at lower depths, causing a horizontal layer of mud to be sucked into the voids created by this subterranean movement.

It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the eventual catastrophe that might have resulted had the fault not been corrected. Selig also found that home sheleters wouldn’t be feasible to install during the cold war using Federal resources. Fortunatly the Federal Highway Administration was able to reallocate the funds for blast shelters to build the National Highway System.

None of Selig’s projects was more intriguing than his work for NASA during the nation’s moon program. Believe it or not, at the time there was hot debate about what would happen to the first lunar module when it settled on the mysterious surface on the moon. Would it come to a jarring halt on a solid foundation, or would it sink into a sea of dust as if foundering in a kind of lunar quicksand? 

To answer this question and settle the sinking sensation experienced by some NASA scientists, Selig created simulated moon dust using a kind of white flour prepared by grinding silica sand into fine, powdery particles. Then he conducted experiments on his artificial moon dust in a vacuum chamber in order to mimic the absence of atmosphere on the moon. During his tests, he established depths of various densities and carried out penetration and static weight-bearing experiments to determine strength characteristics.

The success of his NASA project was proven when the Apollo 11 lunar module set down safely on the moon and astronaut Neil Armstrong made "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," instead of sinking like a character in an Indiana Jones movie.

These and many other successes inspired the American Society of Mechanical Engineering to award Selig the Pi Tau Sigma Gold Medal for outstanding achievements within 10 years of earning his Ph.D. 

He came to UMass Amherst in 1978 and established the Geotechnical Engineering Program, including the study of instrumentation for ground monitoring, design, and utilization of buried pipelines and culverts, embankments, highway pavements, earth-slope stability, structural foundations, and earth retaining structures.

Since then, his achievements are legion. Selig has published more than 200 journal papers on his varied research, contributed numerous chapters for various books, and is the author of Track Geotechnology and Substructure Management, published in 1995. This book is a comprehensive study which provides practical advice and guidance on the important role played by ground engineering in the construction of railway track, the use of which will result in optimum quality with the minimum maintenance effort and the most economical use of resources. Show MoreShow Less

Selig owns three U.S. patents and has served as a visiting professor in such places as MIT, Oxford University, Moscow State University, the University of Nottingham, and the University of Pretoria. He was also elected as a Fellow of both the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Society for Testing and Materials. He has won many national professional awards, including the Charles E. Dudley Award from the American Society for Testing and Materials, the Award of Special Merit from the American Concrete Pipe Association, the Stephen D. Bechtel Pipeline Engineering Award, and the Corrugated Polyethylene Pipe Association Award for Landmark Research.

With all this grounding, Selig proceeded to pursue his great passion: railroad engineering. During the intervening years, his studies on railroad beds and their surrounding sub-ground structures, including buried pipelines, have built up a lifetime of priceless information. Now, still going strong despite the Parkinson’s disease that would discourage lesser souls, Selig has spent the past 10 years condensing all these data, photos, studies, and other information into his 1,600-page encyclopedia of railroad beds.

“Over the past 45 years or more,” Selig explained his magnum opus, “my colleagues have been looking for ways of getting needed information on railway substructure to people in the industry, many of whom do not have a science or engineering background or the training necessary for understanding the intricacies of geotechnical engineering…I have decided to compile the information accumulated over the years on the subject and present it in a form suitable for everyone working in the industry."

Currently, Selig is working with an undergraduate student, who is helping him load this wealth of geotechnical railroad information onto an encyclopedic website, which will serve as a sort of railway terminal, roundhouse, and depot for people in the industry needing to access the relatively unstudied field of engineering railway substructures.

Selig would like to thank his colleagues for all their hard work over the many years which has helped to achieve priceless research. The research required a variety of skills, which came from many different people who contributed to Selig’s success over the course of his career. (January 2013)