Why Does the Leaning Tower of Pisa Lean?

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iStock

In 1172, Donna Berta di Bernardo donated 60 silver coins to the local cathedral for the purchase of stones to be used in the base of a new bell tower.

The next year, construction on the tower began and almost immediately there were problems. The tower site sat on soft ground composed mostly of clay, fine sand, and shells (the city sits between the Arno and the Serchio rivers). By the time the builders finished the second floor in 1178, the tower was beginning to lean.

Soon, construction was halted for almost 100 years, as Pisa fought wars against Genoa, Lucca, and Florence. This may have been a lucky break, as modern analysis says that the tower definitely would have toppled had construction continued without time for the soil to settle.

When work on the tower resumed again, it was leaning 0.2 degrees north of vertical, but by the time the workers started on the seventh floor, the tower was tilting one degree south. Around this time, construction stopped again for unknown reasons.

DON'T LEAN ON ME

Over the next century, construction continued intermittently.

The tower’s lean gained another 1.6 degrees. To counteract the lean, the builders made the remaining floors taller on the south side of the tower. But the weight of the additional floors only made the foundation sink further, making the lean worse. Having done what they could, the builders finished up and officially completed the tower around 1370.

Since the tower’s completion, engineers and architects from all over the world have monitored the lean and tried to correct it. These attempts have involved adding grout to the foundation masonry, wrapping plastic-coated steel pieces around the tower up to the second floor, pouring a concrete ring around the base of the tower, laying lead counterweights to the north side, installing anchored cable counterweights, and extracting soil from underneath the north side.

After the removal of more than 70 metric tons of soil in 2008, engineers announced that the Tower had been stabilized enough that it had stopped moving for the first time since construction began. Its lean is now only about four degrees (prior to the all the restoration attempts, the lean was 5.5 degrees), or about 13 feet past perfectly vertical. The Leaning Tower of Pisa should be stable for at least the next 200 years.

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What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King, Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

Some three decades after he earned his doctorate, in 1989, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article was originally published in 2013.

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