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A Trip Down Blog Memory Lane: 1800 Words on Why Steel Can Fail Without Melting

Posted by on | June 13, 2018 | Comments Off

I was randomly browsing my blog history when I encountered a post from over 11 years ago when it was necessary to spend 1800+ words explaining why steel could still fail in the Twin Towers even when it did not actually melt.

Of late, Rosie [O'Donnell] has joined the “truthers,” using her show to flog the notion that the WTC was brought down in a government-planned controlled demolition….

Rosie, as others have, made a point of observing that jet fuel does not burn hot enough to melt steel, and therefore the fire in the main towers could not have caused the structure to yield and collapse.  This is absurd.  It is a kindergartener’s level of science.  It is ignorant of a reality that anyone who has had even one course in structural engineering or metallurgy will understand.  The argument made that “other buildings have burned and not collapsed” is only marginally more sophisticated, sort of equivalent to saying that seeing an iceberg melts proves global warming.  …

Here is the reality that most 19-year-old engineering students understand:  Steel loses its strength rapidly with temperature, losing nearly all of its structural strength by 1000 degrees F, well below its melting point but also well below the temperature of burning jet fuel.

And on and on from there.  Seriously,  I know its hard to believe this was even necessary, but it was a serious charge by some of our intellectual betters in the entertainment industry.  Actually, it brings me a certain comfort in encountering this again — maybe our public discourse is not really getting substantially stupider.  Maybe it has always been that way.

Look, I am not mocking you if you don’t know the material properties of steel and how they change with temperature.   Odds are, in your jobs, you do not need to know anything about it.  What bothers me are the people who know nothing about these topics who speak with such certainty.  In some ways it seems to go past Dunning-Krueger,   People making these absolute pronouncements not only don’t know anything about the topic, but many have actively avoided ever finding themselves in a classroom where the topic (or more accurately the mathematical and scientific foundations of the topic) might have been discussed.

It’s not like I am totally immune to this.   Here are a few topics that I may have blogged about a few times years and years ago but now I won’t touch because I know I don’t understand them:

  • Central banking and monetary policy
  • Almost anything having to do with chemistry, including ocean acidification (or more accurately, reduced ocean alkalinity).  I even had an A in Organic Chemistry but it did not stick at all.
  • Literary criticism, except to say what I liked and I didn’t like
  • Anything about certain performance-based crafts, like singing and acting, except to say which performances I did and did not enjoy
  • Ice hockey, horse racing, and soccer (which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy watching them)
  • 80% of what Tyler Cowen writes about
  • Anything about music post-1985
  • Anything on cooking or food
  • Absolutely anything on wine

To the last point, I got invited to a wine tasting the other day.  Everyone was saying they tasted chicory or boysenberry or a hint of diatomaceous earth or whatever and I tasted .. wine.  Honestly I felt like a blind person sitting in on a discussion of the color wheel.  But I resist the temptation to scream that it is all just the emperor’s new clothes — I am sure the people around me can honestly taste differences that I can’t.  I know I can taste differences in bourbon they cannot taste.  Good vodkas on the other hand, are a different matter.  Some day I am going to do a blind vodka tasting for my vodka-snob friends and see if they really can taste the difference.

Postscript I used to love the show Connections by James Burke.  He would start with something like the Defenestration of Prague and show a series of connections between it and, say, the invention of the telephone.  Perhaps you can see why I found it entertaining since I began a post about the structural strength of steel at different temperatures and ended it with whether good vodkas really taste different.

There are a lot of James Burke TV episodes on Youtube and I recommend them all.  Connections is recommended of course but I actually think his best series was season 1 of the Day the Universe Changed.  I believe this is episode 1.

 A Trip Down Blog Memory Lane:  1800 Words on Why Steel Can Fail Without Melting  A Trip Down Blog Memory Lane:  1800 Words on Why Steel Can Fail Without Melting  A Trip Down Blog Memory Lane:  1800 Words on Why Steel Can Fail Without Melting

 A Trip Down Blog Memory Lane:  1800 Words on Why Steel Can Fail Without Melting

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