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James Hebden

Predicting the Next Great Quake

How does James Hebden describe himself? “Hardworking, motivated and maybe crazy,” he says. In conversation he doesn’t sound crazy, but his drive to succeed is very apparent.

Hebden triple-majored in physics, geological sciences and the Integrated Science Program. He will graduate with a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in geological sciences in June, and he didn’t even declare the geology major until winter of his junior year. It’s an impressive feat, though Hebden doesn’t brag. “My schedule was tight,” he says, “but I wasn’t worried.”

For his master’s thesis, Hebden, of Bloomington, Ill., generated probabilities for earthquakes in the New Madrid Seismic Zone. “The probability of an earthquake is not equal through time,” he says. “After an earthquake occurs, you wouldn’t expect another one right away. Of course, the risk may increase as time passes.”

Consequently, Hebden estimated not only the current hazard but also the future likelihood of a major earthquake in this south-central U.S. region for each year that it remains quiet.

At the end of winter quarter Hebden was still completing his research, creating computer maps based on the U.S. Geological Survey’s previous analyses.

In terms of the future, he wants to have a positive influence in the world and take an active but nonresearch role in promoting science literacy. “Humanity’s future depends on more knowledgeable people,” he says, “and it would be nice to contribute before I die.”

In July, Hebden will travel to Pohnpei, a tiny island in Micronesia. Through the Harvard Center for International Development’s WorldTeach program he will teach English, math and science for at least 11 months. “I hope to do it for two years,” he says. “The second year is where you can make the biggest impact.”

— Christopher Danzig (J08)

Photo by Andrew Campbell