The Secret of Roman Concrete

Trajan’s Market, Rome, with a vaulted concrete ceiling over brick walls, photo by Szilas via Wikimedia

Roman concrete is an architectural marvel. It made it possible for the Romans to build structures unlike any built with the techniques of stone masonry. It turns out Roman concrete is also a chemical marvel. The combination of volcanic ash and rock, lime, and seawater gradually becomes stronger over time as the interaction of the volcanic components and the seawater forms new minerals that fill up cracks and reinforce the structure.

An article from the Guardian explains the process:

Over time, seawater that seeped through the concrete dissolved the volcanic crystals and glasses, with aluminous tobermorite and phillipsite crystallising in their place. These minerals […] helped to reinforce the concrete, preventing cracks from growing, with structures becoming stronger over time as the minerals grew.

Given the limitations of Roman science, it’s doubtful that an ancient Roman concrete expert could have explained the chemical processes that happened in concrete, but that doesn’t mean that Romans just stumbled onto this formula by accident. Even with a limited theoretical understanding, smart people can acquire a lot of practical knowledge through experimentation and careful observation.

Thoughts for writers

Something to keep in mind when worldbuilding: practical knowledge doesn’t have to come from theoretical knowledge. In fact, it is often the opposite: theoretical knowledge develops from an attempt to explain what we already know practically to be true. If you want your fictional cultures to be able to make sturdy concrete, or airships, or vaccines, that doesn’t require them to have a modern understanding of chemistry, physics, or biology. Pre-modern peoples discovered lots of useful things by trial and error and paying close attention to the world around them, even if their attempts to explain why those things worked were sometimes wide of the mark, or they never attempted to explain them at all.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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A Flight Suit Resembling Iron Man’s Is in the Works

Inventor Richard Browning has bold thinking in abundance. With the company he started, Gravity Industries, he’s developed a jet-engine suit like Iron Man’s to re-imagine manned flight.

British entrepreneur invents, builds and files patent for Iron Man-like flight suit by Gravity Industries

This 3.5-minute YouTube video captures the highlights of the development during a year. It closely resembles Tony Stark’s faltering design process in Iron Man—except this time it’s real. And while Gravity’s suit isn’t streamlined nor capable of long-distance flight at this point, there seems to be a modicum of potential. Staggering!

Found via File 770.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Online Finds: Trappist-1 Illustrations

A NASA Tumblr post about the newly found exoplanets in the Trappist-1 system included fantastic artist’s renderings of what the system and the planets might look like.

NASA Tumblr Trappist-1 Illustration System

“The planets also are very close to each other. How close? Well, if a person was standing on one of the planet’s surface, they could gaze up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighboring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth’s sky.”

NASA Tumblr Trappist-1 Illustration Planet

One is even a retro-style travel poster! (See other NASA retro travel posters here.)

NASA Tumblr Trappist-1 Illustration Poster

Love ’em! Find more at NASA on Tumblr!

Note: I wasn’t paid or perked to mention this; just passing along a good thing.

Crossposted from the Playfully Grownup Home blog.

Images by NASA, via the NASA Tumblr blog.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

NASA Goes off to Outer Space for Star Wars Day

This May the Fourth, NASA rules. Check out what they posted on the NASA Tumblr account:

NASA Tumblr Saturns Moon Mimas

“Worlds That Will Make You Believe Star Wars is Real

“The fantastical planets in Star Wars preceded our discovery of real planets outside our solar system… but fiction isn’t too far from the facts. When we send our spacecraft into the solar system and point our telescopes beyond, we often see things that seem taken right out of the Star Wars universe.

“Is there a more perfect time than May the 4th to compare real worlds to the ones depicted in Star Wars?

“Probably not… so here are a few:

What follows is pictures (mostly artists’ renderings) and short descriptions of eight planetary bodies that could serve as models for various locations in the Star Wars universe. And don’t let the photo of Saturn’s moon Mimas above fool you; it’s the most scruffy-looking of the bunch.

NASA’s post isn’t earth-shattering or deep or anything. But it does show a sense of humor, and combines pop culture geekery with science geekery in a very satisfying way. (YMMV, of course.)

I’m gonna go take you to Jabba now follow NASA on Tumblr right now.

Image: Saturn’s moon Mimas (the so-called Death Star moon) via NASA on Tumblr.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

The Martian Cast & ISS Crew Chat

File 770 has a nice roundup of ten clips from and about The Martian, ranging from teasers and trailers to interviews and talks. The coolest is perhaps a 20-some minute call between two The Martian actors and two of six members of the International Space Station crew:

Space Station Crew Members Talk to Cast of The Martian

From the ISS, Expedition 45 Commander Scott Kelly and Flight Engineer Kjell Lindgren were on the horn; from the movie cast, Sebastian Stan and Mackenzie Davis during a visit they made to Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in September.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Fantastic Worlds Exhibit at The Smithsonian

The Smithsonian’s new exhibit Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction, 1780-1910 opened on July 01, 2015. In addition to the physical exhibit, the Smithsonian Libraries provide an online version.

The Smithsonian Libraries online exhibit Fantastic Worlds.
The Smithsonian Libraries online exhibit Fantastic Worlds.

From the online exhibit description:

“Travel with us to the surface of the moon, the center of the earth, and the depths of the ocean — to the fantastic worlds of fiction inspired by 19th-century discovery and invention.

“New frontiers of science were emerging. We took to the air, charted remote corners of the earth, and harnessed the power of steam and electricity. We began unlocking the secrets of the natural world. The growing literate middle class gave science a new and avid public audience. Writers explored the farther reaches of the new scientific landscape to craft novels, hoaxes, and satires.”

The online exhibit reveals a new thematic component (or chapter) each Tuesday. So far we’ve seen “Terra Incognita” and The Age of the Aeronaut”. The chapters include images, maps, and videos, plus intriguing curator’s notes. Sounds great for early science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts, as well as people interested in the history of exploration or late 1700s to 1800s.

Found via Smithsonian Libraries on Tumblr.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.