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Why Are There Crushed Stones Alongside Railroad Tracks?

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Why are there crushed stones alongside rail tracks?

David S. Rose:

This is a good question with an interesting answer. The crushed stones are what is known as ballast. Their purpose is to hold the wooden cross ties in place, which in turn hold the rails in place.

Think about the engineering challenge faced by running miles of narrow ribbons of steel track on top of the ground: they are subject to heat expansion and contraction, ground movement and vibration, precipitation buildup from rough weather, and weed and plant growth from underneath. Now keep in mind that while 99 percent of the time they are just sitting there unburdened, the remaining one percent of the time they are subject to moving loads as heavy as one million pounds (the weight of a Union Pacific Big Boy locomotive and its tender).

Put all this together, and you have yourself a really, really interesting problem that was first solved nearly 200 years ago, and hasn't been significantly improved since.

The answer is to start with the bare ground, and then build up a foundation to raise the track high enough so it won't get flooded. On top of the foundation, you deposit a load of crushed stone (the ballast). On top of the stone, you lay down (perpendicular to the direction of the track) a line of wooden beams on 19.5 inch centers, 8.5 feet long, 9 inches wide and 7 inches thick, weighing about 200 pounds ... 3249 of them per mile. You then continue to dump crushed stone all around the beams. The sharp edges of the stone make it difficult for them to slide over each other (in the way that smooth, round pebbles would), thus effectively locking them in place.

The beams are made of hardwood (usually oak or hickory), and impregnated with creosote for weather protection. In the U.S. we call them "cross ties" (or, colloquially, just "railroad ties"); in the UK they are known as "sleepers"; European Portuguese, "travessas"; Brazilian Portuguese, "dormentes"; Russian, шпала (read "shpala"); French "traverses." While 93 percent of ties in the U.S. are still made of wood, heavily trafficked modern rail lines are increasingly trying alternatives, including composite plastic, steel, and concrete.

Next, you bring in hot-rolled steel rails, historically 39' long in the U.S. (because they were carried to the site in 40' gondola cars), but increasingly now 78', and lay them on top of the ties, end to end. They used to be joined by bolting on an extra piece of steel (called a "fishplate") across the side of the joint, but today are usually continuously welded end-to-end.

It would seem that you could just nail them or bolt them down to the ties, but that won't work. The non-trivial movement caused by heat expansion and contraction along the length of the rail would cause it to break or buckle if any of it were fixed in place. So instead, the rails are attached to the sleepers by clips or anchors, which hold them down but allow them to move longitudinally as they expand or contract.

So there you have it: a centuries-old process that is extremely effective at facilitating the movement of people and material over thousands of miles ... even though nothing is permanently attached to the ground with a fixed connection!

The ballast distributes the load of the ties (which, in turn, bear the load of the train on the track, held by clips) across the foundation, allows for ground movement, thermal expansion and weight variance, allows rain and snow to drain through the track, and inhibit the growth of weeds and vegetation that would quickly take over the track.

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

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Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
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Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

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

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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