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What Are the Most Important Libraries in the World?

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Wonderful libraries are everywhere, each one home to a unique collection of the world’s knowledge and history. The collections in these libraries, though, top the charts. Grab a bib, English majors—you’re about to drool.

St. Catherine’s Monastery

Built in the 6th century, St. Catherine’s is the oldest continuously running library in the world. The building itself is a piece of history. It supposedly houses the Burning Bush—the divine topiary spotted by Moses. It also stores the second largest collection of early manuscripts and codices anywhere. Its collection includes the Syriac Sinaiticus—one of the oldest translations of the New Testament—and the Achtiname, a document so old, it was ratified by the prophet Muhammad. As for art, the library stores the oldest—and best-preserved—Christian icons in the world.

Vatican Library

The Roman Catholic Church has been collecting documents since the 4th century, although it took until 1471 for the Holy See to build an official library for them all. The Vatican Library has the most significant collection of historical texts anywhere. Mull over these numbers: 1.6 million books. 75,000 codices. 8600 incunabula (texts printed in the 15th century). It’s no surprise that the library owns the Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209—the oldest complete Bible in the world, penned near the year 325. If that weren’t enough, 52 miles of shelving in the Secret Archives hold the complete records of the Church’s activities since 1198.

U.S. Library of Congress

The Library of Congress holds 150 million items and adds about 10,000 each day, making it the largest library in the world. When you’ve got that much stuff coming through the door, you’re bound to have an amazing collection. That includes Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, every U.S. patent, three centuries worth of newspapers, a perfect vellum Gutenberg Bible, a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, a few Stradivarius violins, the largest rare book collection in North America and—oh, let’s not forget—over 100,000 comic book titles. The LOC even archives tweets. By January 2013, it had catalogued 170 billion of them.

Mount Athos

Located in Northeast Greece, Mount Athos is the spiritual capital of Orthodox Christianity. Athos is still locked in medieval times, and monks are the only inhabitants. (Admission into one of the twenty monasteries is tougher than admission to Harvard!) More impressive, though, are the Athos’ libraries. The Monastery of Great Lavra arguably has the greatest collection of Greek manuscripts, codices, and scrolls in the world. Mount Athos also holds priceless treasures and icons from the long-lost Byzantine Empire.

Beneicke Rare Books and Manuscript Library

This Yale library is proof you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The building is a giant, ugly block of concrete. But inside? A gorgeous trove of rare books, one of the largest of its kind in the world. Whenever the library receives a new text, it’s frozen at -33F for three days to kill bookworms. Then it’s enclosed in glass, which, in case of a fire, is flooded with Halon 1301 and Inergen fire suppressant gases. Of course, there’s a lot of amazing stuff to save. Originals of James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, and over 3100 incunabula.

Trinity College, Dublin

Each year, millions flock to Trinity’s Long Library. And with good reason—it’s beautiful. But the real value isn’t in the impressive woodwork, but what’s on the shelves. The library, along with the Special Collections archive, contains most of Ireland’s recorded history. (The oldest document dates back to the 13th century BCE!) Highlights include the Book of Armagh—a 9th century manuscript in Old Irish detailing St. Patrick’s exploits—and the Book of Kells, a stunning illustrated version of the four gospels from the 8th or 9th century.

National Library of China

The National Library of China reaches further back in time than any other library on this list. It has 270,000 ancient and rare Chinese books, plus 35,000 early inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells from the Shang Dynasty (That’s 36 centuries old!). Included in the 27 million volumes are the Xiping Stone classics:  Confucian stories that are so ancient, they’re carved in stone.

British Library

The British Library meets every expectation you may have for a treasure trove of knowledge. Its collection is the second largest in the world, dating back as far as 2000 BCE. It’s got 4 million maps, 1 million musical scores, and a total of 150 million items. Each year, it adds six miles worth of material. No wonder greats like George Orwell, Mark Twain, Karl Marx, and Mahatma Gandhi explored its shelves.

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What Are the Best Places to See a Sunset?
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What makes sunsets so eye-catching? Air molecules! When the sun shines during the day, air molecules reflect waves of blue and violet light. Our eyes can’t process violet well, so the sky looks blue. Later when the sun sets, those sunbeams travel through more air molecules, which scatter those waves of blue and violet. They scatter so much that we can no longer see them, unveiling the other side of the color spectrum—yellows, oranges, and reds. The closer the sun gets to the horizon, the farther those sunbeams must travel, and the more colorful the sky becomes.

Now that the science is out of the way, here are some of the best places to watch the sun’s late-day lightshow.

Santorini, Greece

In the village of Oia, sugar-white homes capped with blue domes are carved into a cliff-side. Narrow cobblestone paths zigzag up to the town’s pinnacle, an old castle with a postcard view of the greatest sunset in Greece. From there, you can watch oranges and purples splash off the Aegean Sea, bathing Oia’s buildings in dazzling color.

Grand Canyon, USA

When the sun goes down, the Grand Canyon turns up the Technicolor. Light reflects off layers of geological strata, revealing every hue of red and orange imaginable. Views are amazing from both the canyon’s South and North Rim, although you’ll bump into fewer tourists on the north side. Still, if you’re stuck on the south side, Yavapai Point and Hopi Point are musts.

Isle of Skye, Scotland

The isle boasts the grandest mountains in all the UK. Stunning green landslips in the northernmost peninsula near the ocean make for a bewitching nighttime view.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Cambodia’s Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. Not only is the 12th-century complex of temples a cultural treasure, it’s also the centerpiece of Cambodia’s national flag. Watch the sunset from Phnom Bakheng Hill and the temples will sparkle.

Masai Mara National Reserve

Masai Mara is the sort of amazing place where lions bask under lone acacia trees. Zebras and wildebeest migrate across the plains. Silhouettes of giraffes tower in the sunset. Although no one is allowed inside the park at night, you’ll still be able to snap a few photos as the sun says goodnight.

Lofoten, Norway

The Norwegian archipelago may seem like a terrible spot to catch a sunset. From May to July, the sun doesn’t go down. In the winter, it never comes up. But the months in between are what make Lofoten dazzling. That’s when the sun dips below the horizon, but doesn’t sink far enough to darken the sky. The result? A hypnotizing, eight-hour lightshow.

The Maldives

Coconut trees. Aqua blue water. White sandy beaches. Bungalows. If that sounds like your kind of paradise, you’ll love the Maldives. The island chain in the Indian Ocean is home to spellbinding sunsets. The colors will make you feel like you’re honeymooning inside a Monet painting.

All images via Thinkstock.

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How Do Skyscrapers Keep Getting Taller?
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Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the tallest skyscraper in the world, rising 2,717 feet. That’s twice as high as the Empire State Building. How can buildings stretch so high without toppling over?

Until the late 1800s, most urban buildings didn’t peak over 10 stories. Getting much taller was physically impossible with the available construction materials. The higher you build with brick and mortar, the thicker the lower walls have to be. The base of a 70-story brick building would have been so thick that there wouldn’t be any room for a lobby.

That all changed as modern steel became more common. Today, all skyscrapers have a skeleton—a steel frame of vertical steel columns and horizontal I-beams. This skeleton (called the superstructure) transfers all of the building’s weight to the vertical columns, which spread the weighty force of gravity down to the building’s foundation.

The foundation, or substructure, usually stretches down all the way to bedrock. Builders may dig a pit hundreds of feet down to solid rock, where a platform of concrete is laid. Holes called footings are drilled deep into the bedrock, and steel beams are secured inside those holes to anchor the building above.

Most skyscrapers may look square and boxy, but they’re actually circular tubes with cantilevered corners. Ever since the 1960s, skyscrapers over 40 stories have been built with a tubular frame—an engineering technique that saves money and frees up floor space because it requires fewer columns inside. (Chicago’s Willis Tower—formerly the Sears Tower—is actually a bundle of nine tubes.) In the middle of tower, a central concrete core contains elevator shafts, stairwells, and the building’s mechanical guts.

That concrete core is especially important on gusty days, allowing most tall buildings to safely sway like a tree in the breeze. Some buildings battle the wind with tuned mass dampers, oil hydraulic systems that hold a 300 to 400-ton concrete weight near the top floor. A computer system monitors the wind and moves the weight, shifting the building’s load from side to side.

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