The Gateway Arch turned 50 with the help of modern materials and math.

When creating a monument for future generations to behold, there are two features it must possess—simplicity and permanence.  This was the thinking that architect Eero Saarinen used when designing the “Gateway Arch to the West,” which celebrated its 50th anniversary October 28, 2015. Saarinen gained inspiration by looking to the nation’s capital. He surmised that timelessness arose from geometric forms—the Washington Monument is an obelisk; the Lincoln Memorial is a rectangle; and the Jefferson Memorial is a circle in a square. So, Saarinen selected an arch.

However, this arch would be no ordinary arch. Aloft at 630 feet, it had a special geometric form that moved mathematicians and masons—the catenary arch.  A catenary arch appears when a chain hangs freely from two supported ends and occurs in everyday life from draping power lines to necklaces.  When inverted, this arch supports its own weight and differs from a parabola. A catenary arch has steeper legs, a flatter peak, and greater strength. With this appointed shape, Saarinen next sought to find the right building materials to make it.

He chose a material that would represent the modern age—stainless steel. This metal was first created in the 19th century, but perfected in the 20th. It is composed of steel (a combination of iron and carbon) with a dash of chromium. The mix of iron and carbon gives the metal strength, but chromium provides longevity by overcoming iron’s weakness of rusting.

Rust never sleeps, as songwriter Neil Young once penned.  So, the best way to stop it is to prevent it. Paint is one way to halt rust, but an atomic layer of protection helps too. This is where chromium comes in. Chromium makes a thin layer of chromium oxide on the surface, which hinders water from combining with the iron to create rust.

The path to developing the metal for the Gateway Arch was circuitous at best. Stainless steel wasn’t a creation, but an evolution. The discovery of chromium occurred in the 18th century by French chemist Louis Nicolas Vauquelin.  However, the secret to making lasting metals would take some time, as it puzzled some of the world’s greatest minds. Michael Faraday, one of history’s best scientists, began his career investigating new kinds of steel in the 1820s. He had limited success.

Other delays occurred. There were unfiled patents in the 1870s on weather-resistant metals. Then efforts stalled. Two decades later, there was a renewed interest to create stainless steel, but it took a wrong turn. A famous scientist, Sir Robert Hadley, erroneously concluded in the 1890s that chromium lessened steel’s ability to fight corrosion. His unfortunate claim curtailed future work, until Harry Brearley serendipitously uncovered that chromium makes steel “rustless” and commercialized it as cutlery, which was announced in The New York Times in 1915. All these steps together made Saarinen’s Gateway Arch possible.

The stainless steel in the Gateway Arch is the same in a household fork. Metal plates (as thick as four nickels) are held together with miles of welds making the arch’s exterior nearly 900 tons. (For comparison, the Chrysler Building has a 27-ton stainless exterior.) The arch is perched on the edge of the Mississippi where an early trading outpost stood, which was frequented by pioneers, fur traders, and explorers before heading westward. In the 1930s, city leaders wanted to transform this decaying site with a monument to honor those who “won” the west, the Louisiana Purchase, and Thomas Jefferson.

Saarinen’s application in 1947, one of 172 entries including one from his famous architect father, captured what these leaders had envisaged—a message to the future, with modern materials, and a wink to the past, with a simple geometric form. Construction did not begin until 1962. Sadly, Saarinen died of a brain tumor in 1961 and never got to see his structure.

Today, the arch stands strong, although it contends with dirt and chemical pollution from industrial emissions from the arch’s early years. These practices are no longer permissible with the establishment of the Clean Air Act in the 1960s. The survival of the arch is not only a testament to stainless steel but to progressive legislation.  The Gateway Arch continually serves as a material, design, and cultural zeitgeist—relevant to the present, but also connecting us to the past as it propels us upward and forward.

Our expanding waistlines result from the  competition between our modern diet and our ancestral genes.  The book Newton’s Football (Random House) spells in out:

Cheap and easy access to calories is a very recent development in the human condition. The hunting and gathering that early man did was a boom-or-bust business. One day there’d be a feast in the form of ripe fruits and vegetables or a freshly killed ox. And there were, of course, no Ziploc bags or Sub-Zero refrigerators in which to store the leftovers.

When the harvest was over and the hunters hit a dry spell, it was famine time. Attempts to store food were generally unsuccessful, and even when it did work, it still required an early human to defend the food against those who’d steal it, human or otherwise.

Storing excess calories as fat was an elegant solution to these problems.

“Fat is the best defense against a rainy day, and throughout human history there were lots of rainy days,” explains David Katz, founding director of the Yale Prevention Research Center.

Additionally, there is a new ingredient in our diet that our ancestors rarely enjoyed, and that is processed sugar.  Sugar is surprisingly prevalent in our modern diets and is found in bread and crackers and salad dressing and tomato sauce. And, that’s more calories to burn.

Sugar in moderation is a good thing and serves as a fuel for our bodies, but if we don’t use sugar, it gets stored. “It’s subject to the laws of thermodynamics,” says Katz. “If you don’t burn it, the body will store it as an excess of calories.”

As one can see, fat was a Stone Age solution for a rainy day when there wasn’t any food. Unfortunately, in our modern day, that rainy day never comes.

So, blame those extra pounds on your ancestors.

LEDs or light emitting diodes are everywhere from traffic lights to Christmas ornaments to remote controls.  Inside these tiny bulbs is a small grey block which is made of silicon. And, silicon has the unusual origin of coming from sand.

Sand is melted and purified and then cast in long thick logs, called ingots, which are slice like baloney. Twenty years ago, these logs used to be as thick as a thumb, now these logs are wider than dinner plates.  The slice is then cut into small square chips.

The chips are then given a bit of phosphorus on one side and a bit of boron on the other. Phosphorous is an element that has more electrons than silicon; boron has fewer electrons than silicon. These different sides are connected to a battery. The battery pushes electrons from the phosphorous side to the boron side. And, when these electrons connect with atoms that don’t have electrons, light is given off.

LEDs are more efficient than incandescent bulbs. Incandescent bulbs, the ones we attribute to Thomas Edison, give off lots of heat. This is why toy oven use these bulbs to bake small cakes.  In fact, 70 percent of the energy used by incandescent bulbs is heat. That’s wasted energy.

But, LEDs run cool. They are so cool that cities now must remove snow from LED traffic lights during the winter. In the past, incandescent bulbs ran so hot, they would burn off any snow that landed on them. LEDs are not running hot and so snow collects on traffic lights. (This happens when you solve one problem, you inherit another one.)

So, as you can see, small bits of beach sand purified into silicon are made into sandwiches that give off light. Now, this is a bright idea.


Additional reading & activites (Affiliate Links):

Elements: A Visual Exploration 

Snap Electronics Fun LED kit

Materials: A Very Short Introduction