Time Has Only Strengthened These Ancient Roman Walls

J. P. Oleson
J. P. Oleson

Any seaside structure will erode and eventually crumble into the water below. That’s how things work. Or at least that’s how they usually work. Scientists say the ancient Romans figured out a way to build seawalls that actually got tougher over time. They published their findings in the journal American Mineralogist.

The walls’ astonishing durability is not, itself, news. In the 1st century CE, Pliny the Elder described the phenomenon in his Naturalis Historia, writing that the swell-battered concrete walls became "a single stone mass, impregnable to the waves and every day stronger."

We know that Roman concrete involved a mixture of volcanic ash, lime, seawater, and chunks of volcanic rock—and that combining these ingredients produces a pozzolanic chemical reaction that makes the concrete stronger. But modern cement involves a similar reaction, and our seawalls fall apart like anything else beneath the ocean's corrosive battering ram.

Something else was clearly going on.

To find out what it was, geologists examined samples from walls built between 55 BCE and 115 CE. They used high-powered microscopes and X-ray scanners to peer into the concrete's basic structure, and a technique called raman spectroscopy to identify its ingredients.

Microscope image of crystals in ancient Roman concrete.
Courtesy of Marie Jackson

Their results showed that the pozzolanic reaction during the walls' creation was just one stage of the concrete toughening process. The real magic happened once the walls were built, as they sat soaking in the sea. The saltwater did indeed corrode elements of the concrete—but in doing so, it made room for new crystals to grow, creating even stronger bonds.

"We're looking at a system that's contrary to everything one would not want in cement-based concrete," lead author Marie Jackson, of the University of Utah, said in a statement. It's one "that thrives in open chemical exchange with seawater."

The goal now, Jackson says, is to reproduce the precise recipe and toughen our own building materials. But that might be harder than it sounds.

"Romans were fortunate in the type of rock they had to work with," she says. "They observed that volcanic ash grew cements to produce the tuff. We don't have those rocks in a lot of the world, so there would have to be substitutions made."

We still have a lot to learn from the ancient walls and their long-gone architects. Jackson and her colleagues will continue to pore through Roman texts and the concrete itself, looking for clues to its extraordinary strength.

"The Romans were concerned with this," Jackson says. "If we're going to build in the sea, we should be concerned with it too."

Does Sound Travel Faster or Slower in Space?


Viktor T. Toth:

It is often said that sound doesn’t travel in space. And it is true … in empty space. Sound is pressure waves, that is, propagating changes in pressure. In the absence of pressure, there can be no pressure waves, so there is no sound.

But space is is not completely empty and not completely devoid of pressure. Hence, it carries sound. But not in a manner that would match our everyday experience.

For instance, if you were to put a speaker in interstellar space, its membrane may be moving back and forth, but it would be exceedingly rare for it to hit even a single atom or molecule. Hence, it would fail to transfer any noticeable sound energy to the thin interstellar medium. Even the somewhat denser interplanetary medium is too rarefied for sound to transfer efficiently from human scale objects; this is why astronauts cannot yell to each other during spacewalks. And just as it is impossible to transfer normal sound energy to this medium, it will also not transmit it efficiently, since its atoms and molecules are too far apart, and they just don’t bounce into each other that often. Any “normal” sound is attenuated to nothingness.

However, if you were to make your speaker a million times bigger, and let its membrane move a million times more slowly, it would be able to transfer sound energy more efficiently even to that thin medium. And that energy would propagate in the form of (tiny) changes in the (already very tiny) pressure of the interstellar medium, i.e., it would be sound.

So yes, sound can travel in the intergalactic, interstellar, interplanetary medium, and very, very low frequency sound (many octaves below anything you could possibly hear) plays an important role in the formation of structures (galaxies, solar systems). In fact, this is the mechanism through which a contracting cloud of gas can shed its excess kinetic energy and turn into something compact, such as a star.

How fast do such sounds travel, you ask? Why, there is no set speed. The general rule is that for a so-called perfect fluid (a medium that is characterized by its density and pressure, but has no viscosity or stresses) the square of the speed of sound is the ratio of the medium’s pressure to its energy density. The speed of sound, therefore, can be anything between 0 (for a pressureless medium, which does not carry sound) to the speed of light divided by the square root of three (for a very hot, so-called ultrarelativistic gas).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

How Fossil Fuel Use Is Making Carbon Dating Less Accurate

iStock.com/Harry Wedzinga
iStock.com/Harry Wedzinga

The scientific process of carbon dating has been used to determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, seeds found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and many other archaeological finds under 60,000 years old. However, as SciShow points out in a recent episode, the excessive use of fossil fuels is making that method less reliable.

Carbon dating, also called radiocarbon or C-14 dating, involves analyzing the ratio of two isotopes of carbon: C-14 (a radioactive form of carbon that decays over time) and C-12 (a more stable form). By analyzing that ratio in a given object compared to a living organism, archaeologists, paleontologists, and other scientists can get a pretty clear idea of how old that first object is. However, as more and more fossil fuels are burned, more carbon dioxide is released into the environment. In turn, this releases more of another isotope, called C-12, which changes the ratio of carbon isotopes in the atmosphere and skews the carbon dating analysis. This phenomenon is called the Suess effect, and it’s been well-documented since the ‘70s. SciShow notes that the atmospheric carbon ratio has changed in the past, but it wasn’t anything drastic.

A recent study published in Nature Communications demonstrates the concept. Writing in The Conversation, the study authors suggest that volcanoes “can lie about their age." Ancient volcanic eruptions can be dated by comparing the “wiggly trace” of C-14 found in trees killed in the eruption to the reference "wiggle" of C-14 in the atmosphere. (This process is actually called wiggle-match dating.) But this method “is not valid if carbon dioxide gas from the volcano is affecting a tree’s version of the wiggle,” researchers write.

According to another paper cited by SciShow, we're adding so much C-12 to the atmosphere at the current rate of fossil fuel usage that by 2050 brand-new materials will seem like they're 1000 years old. Some scientists have suggested that levels of C-13 (a more stable isotope) be taken into account while doing carbon dating, but that’s only a stopgap measure. The real challenge will be to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

For more on how radiocarbon dating is becoming less predictable, check out SciShow’s video below.