Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Taking a fresh look at familiar landmarks with The Geek Atlas

Three of the places in The Geek Atlas are probably familiar to many people: the Atomium in Brussels, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO.

So you might ask yourself why I included them. The answer is that all three have real scientific interest.

The shiny Atomium is actually in the shape of an iron crystal. More interestingly it's the shape of just one of the allotropes of iron (the different structures that iron can form). Allotropes are very important because they show how a simple element like carbon can form graphite, diamonds and other more exotic structures.

The Eiffel Tower's shape was determined by Gustav Eiffel by calculating the effect of the Parisian wind on such a tall structure (at the time it was the tallest building in the world). And Eiffel managed to make it tall and fragile looking by calculating which pieces of iron he could remove.

The Gateway Arch is an example of a catenary arch. A catenary is a natural shaped formed just by the force of gravity. If you hold a piece of string with its ends in each hand and then hold your hands level the string falls to form a graceful catenary curve.

Details of these three places, the science behind them, and one more surprise about The Eiffel Tower (for which you'll probably want a pair of binoculars) are in the book.

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