Written By: Isabel Powell
Now that COVID restrictions are lifting and the world is becoming more accessible, many of us are yearning to leave home and experience the world. Whether through magnificent waterfalls and rainforests or beautiful, culturally diverse cities, every vacation destination provides an opportunity to explore the scientific enigmas that have molded our world.
The Grand Canyon
Arizona, United States
Sprinkled across the deserts of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, the dramatic canyons and caverns of the American Southwest are a sight to behold. Few of those landmarks, however, inspire as much awe as the Grand Canyon.
So, how exactly was this spectacular sight formed? Over one billion years ago, two of the Earth’s tectonic plates collided to produce the Vishnu Mountains. Over the next 500 million years, these mountains slowly eroded until a nearly flat surface emerged, causing a sea to form over the rocks. Sediment settled to the bottom of this sea, continuously compounding layers of organic and inorganic material. Each layer of sediment reflected the species living during the respective time period. About six million years ago, tectonic collisions raised the Rocky Mountains, causing the Colorado River to carve through the sea formed from the Vishnu Mountains and expose the visibly stratified layers of ancient rock that make up the Grand Canyon. These layers can provide geologic evidence that gives scientists a glimpse into history.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
This beautiful Tuscan city, home to centuries of artistry, history, and culture, is worth visiting for the delicious food and beautiful scenery alone. But Pisa’s main attraction, bringing in five million visitors annually, is rooted in physics.
Completed in 1372, the Leaning Tower of Pisa has been tilting sideways ever since. Currently, the tower is at an angle of about four degrees but has tilted to over five degrees in the 1990s. The tower has yet to topple over due to its carefully designed geometry; its center of gravity lies over the base of the tower, allowing the structure to remain standing. While the Leaning Tower of Pisa may appear precariously balanced, it is in no danger of falling so long as it maintains a consistent tilt.
A train ride through the Italian countryside can transport you from the physical and mathematical enigma of Pisa to the archaeological wonder of Pompeii.
For centuries during the Roman Empire, Pompeii thrived on fertile agricultural land due to its proximity to the volcanic Mount Vesuvius. One unfortunate day in 79 AD, extreme pressure built up within the volcano, causing it to erupt and bury the entire city in a thick layer of ash. The lava and ash descended so quickly that it engulfed the entire city in only 25 hours. The hot ash solidified around objects on the ground, creating casts that survived natural degradation. Almost two millennia later, excavations reveal carefully preserved remains, aqueducts, homes, and faded frescos in a haunting tableau of a city desperately trying to escape disaster.
Grand Prismatic Spring
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, United States
One of the most stunning of the United States’ 423 national parks, Yellowstone is home to powerful geysers like Old Faithful, colorful hot springs like the Grand Prismatic, hundreds of animal species, and beautiful waterfalls.
The stunning colors of the Grand Prismatic Spring, located in Yellowstone National Park, make it worth visiting. This spring is home to many microorganisms, including thermophiles, which thrive thanks to the spring’s extreme temperature fluctuations. Thermophiles are responsible for the rainbow array we see in these pools. Hot water warmed by subterranean lava that rises 121 feet through a crack in the Earth’s surface travels through the spring, slowly dissipating heat. Different temperatures of water attract different species of thermophiles, each of which produces a different color.
Far from Europe’s bustling cities, Iceland is home to an array of natural wonders. Its jaw-dropping cliffs, ice blue hot springs, dramatic waterfalls, and captivating Northern Lights attract adventurous travelers.
The Aurora Borealis, colloquially termed the Northern Lights, decorates the night sky in Iceland. This display is possible because of the electrically charged particles from the Sun that slip through Earth’s protective magnetic field and collide with gases in the atmosphere. Just as firework colors can be curated by combusting specific metals, each color among the Northern Lights represents a unique collision between a charged particle and an atmospheric gas. The iconic green hue results from charged particles colliding with oxygen molecules, and blue and purple colors are generated by collisions with nitrogen gas. These gas molecules absorb the particle’s energy, exciting its electrons, and emit a wavelength of light that we perceive as a beautiful color illuminating the night sky.
The Great Pyramid of Giza
Giza Necropolis, Egypt
Float down the Nile River into the Egyptian desert and the Valley of Kings, where enormous pyramids and Sphinx carvings tell the mystery-shrouded story of ancient cultures.
The mystery behind the construction of the Pyramids of Giza has fascinated historians and engineers alike for centuries. The Great Pyramid of Giza, which stands 138 meters (or 454 feet) tall, was built without modern tools, a fact that leaves scientists baffled. It was recently discovered that the granite used in the interior of the pyramids originated from over 800 kilometers away, prompting questions about its arrival to the Valley of Kings. These rocks were transported on ships down the Nile while limestone blocks were extracted from nearby quarries. From the port of Giza, the blocks were placed on the structure without the help of wheels or pulleys; the builders were able to determine that by precisely moistening the sand, they could substantially reduce friction and allow the rocks to slide across the desert. These rocks were then raised, likely with the help of spiral ramps, to be added to the pyramid. The exact construction methods remain a mystery, but these findings suggest that Ancient Egypt was home to some of mankind’s earliest physicists and engineers.
Sacred Valley of the Incas, Peru
Travel through the Sacred Valley of the Incas through ruins, temples, and fortresses to the city of Aguas Calientes, shrouded in a rainforest. From there, wind along the mountain’s precarious edges to the peak, obscured by clouds, to find the hidden city of Machu Picchu.
Just as the Egyptians employed advanced scientific principles to build the Pyramids, so too did the Incas while building Machu Picchu. Perched precariously high on a steep mountainside in the Peruvian rainforest, Machu Picchu is undoubtedly one of the world’s most captivating landmarks. The city is home to intricately designed aqueducts and canals that transport 26 gallons of water a minute into the city and purposeful drainage systems hidden beneath the stone walls. The city was built upon intersecting fault lines which provided builders an abundance of smaller, carved rocks to construct the expansive city. Walls and doorways, for example, were built at an 8-13% incline to withstand earthquakes. This archeological gem is absolutely worth visiting, especially for civil engineers who want to marvel at its architecture and natural beauty.
Biodiversity creates the brilliant colors that fill our world, while erosion and weathering reveal buried histories and allow us to travel into the past. Physics and engineering, both of the accidental and purposeful varieties, have created the man-made marvels of ancient and modern civilizations. Everything worth visiting, whether a natural wonder or an ornately crafted edifice, exists and remains preserved because of science. Each vacation or journey can only enhance our appreciation of the overwhelming power of science and its role in creating the beautiful world around us.