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The Leaning Tower of Pisa!

May 29, 2008 on 4:40 pm | In Physics |

Back in 1999, I was an undergraduate, majoring in both Physics and Classics (Ancient Greek and Latin languages and Greek and Roman history). I was studying abroad, living in Rome, working part-time as a server in a kitchen to help pay the bills. And one of the opportunities I had was to go to Pisa, which is just a short train ride away from Rome. After all, who wouldn’t want to go see the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa? (Allegedly, even Galileo had some interesting dealings there.)

The tower is over 800 years old, and started leaning from the time it was first constructed. In fact, if you look closely, you can see that the tower isn’t completely straight. Why not? Because it started leaning during construction, they started to build the top stories at an angle, to counteract the leaning!

Back in 1999, it was not open to the public, and you certainly couldn’t go inside. Why not? Because the Tower not only started leaning when it was first being built, but it continued to shift, and shift, and shift, as the tremendous pressure on the weak ground beneath it continued to give way.

Little did I know what was really going on. Deep beneath the Earth, engineers were working on a project to dig out 70 tonnes (154,000 pounds) of dirt from the northern side of the tower, to encourage it to right itself. The truly amazing thing? They managed to do it for only 26 million Euros (40 million dollars). What’s more, is that they embedded sensors in the ground to monitor the stresses and positions of the tower.

Guess what? In the aftermath of this, two remarkable things have happened.

  1. The tower actually shifted back the other way, and is now 19 inches (or 0.5 meters) more upright than it was before.
  2. Most shockingly, the removal of 70 tonnes of Earth beneath the tower has actually stabilized it, and for the first time in its 800 year history, the Leaning Tower of Pisa isn’t shifting any more.

This is great! And here I was worried we were going to have to call in the big guns to fix it…


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