For whom the bell tolls

[Image: Diagram of Taipei 101's earthquake ball via the Long Now Foundation].

Earlier this week, the Long Now Foundation looked at earthquake dampers inside skyscrapers, focusing specifically on Taipei 101—a building whose unanticipated seismic side-effects (the building's construction might have reopened an ancient tectonic fault) are quite close to my heart.

As it happens, Taipei 101 includes a 728-ton sphere locked in a net of thick steel cables hung way up toward the top of the building. This secret Piranesian moment of inner geometry effectively acts as a pendulum or counterweight—a damper—for the motions of earthquakes.

[Image: The 728-ton damper in Taipei 101, photographed by ~Wei~].

As earthquake waves pass up through the structure, the ball remains all but stationary; its inertia helps to counteract the movements of the building around it, thus "dampening" the earthquake.

It is a mobile center, loose amidst the grid that contains it.

[Image: Animated GIF via Wikipedia].

However, there's something about discovering a gigantic pendulum inside a skyscraper that makes my imagination reel. It's as if the whole structure is a grandfather clock, or some kind of avant-garde metronome for a musical form that hasn't been invented yet. As if, down there in the bedrock, or perhaps a few miles out at sea inside a submarine, every few seconds you hear the tolling of a massive church bell – but it's not a bell, it's the 728-ton spherical damper inside Taipei 101 knocking loose against its structure.

Or it's like an alternate plot for Ghostbusters: instead of finding out that Sigourney Weaver's New York high-rise is literally an antenna for the supernatural, they realize that it's some strange form of architectural clock, with a massive pendulum inside—a great damper—its cables hidden behind closet walls and elevator shafts covered in dust; but, at three minutes to midnight on the final Halloween of the millennium, a deep and terrifying bell inside the building starts to toll.

The city goes dark. The tolling gets louder. In all the region's cemeteries, the soil starts to quake.

(Thanks to Kevin Wade Shaw for the link!)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Epic, epic, EPIC post! My mind is a movie screen of grandfather clocks one-hundred stories high.

June 26, 2008 12:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating post. This brings three things to mind:

The human bell counterweights in Gubbio, Italy, who literally ride the town hall bells like massive swings to ring them during evening festivals, while visible from the piazza below.

Nikola Tesla's "earthquake generator," a tunable pulse generator able to set up increasing (and potentially de-stabilizing) vibrations in large structures. (Apparently tested with some success by Discovery TV's "Mythbusters.")

And finally, the potential for Bond-villain-level mayhem if tower counterweights could be hacked (or just pushed) to propagate sway rather than dampen it.

June 26, 2008 3:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm picturing a lost reel of Modern Times - Charlie Chaplin finds his way up to the pendulum room in a skyscraper, and is swinging back and forth on it with reckless abandon...

... Down on the streets, people are panicking as the skyscraper sways wildly back and forth...

June 26, 2008 4:02 PM  
Blogger anders said...

This is an amazing gem of writing, Geoff. Loved it.

June 26, 2008 4:17 PM  
Blogger Lord of the Barnyard said...

The cutaway view leaves me wanting a bigger ball of counterweightiness. Seems so tiny in there.
Is this a tried and true skyrise shaking damper or a hypothetical one?
What inventive things could a criminal mastermind do with the ball in a city? I'm thinking mousetrap here...

June 26, 2008 5:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is a YouTube video of the damper in action during the earthquake in China last month.

June 26, 2008 10:46 PM  
Blogger Connor Wingfield said...

more balls; less sci-fi

June 27, 2008 12:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There might be another reason why your title is apt.

With a bell, most of the concussive energy carried by air is funneled out the bottom. In the Taipei 101, if the sphere dampens side-to-side motion caused by a hypothetical earthquake, it would seem that energy would translate downward in a subtle jack-hammering effect on the earth's crust.

In absence of an earthquake, those tiered walls reminiscent of sails appear able to catch a lot of wind to initiate the vibrations.

At the end of the Guardian article you linked to, the building's effect was compared to a "mere needle" - which actually can cause quite a long crack in a thin sheet of glass or ice.

June 27, 2008 10:16 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

I'll have another post about a similar topic, I hope, soon.

Russ, your vision of the earthquake ball tolling like a bell in the wind and thus sending forces shivering down the building to crack tectonic plates is fantastic!

June 27, 2008 2:22 PM  
Blogger joshuapoteat said...

There's a great novel you guys might like by Chris Adrian called "The Children's Hospital," (McSweeny's, 2006) in which a hospital was secretly built as an ark in advance of a biblical/earth-destroying flood. It's pretty wild.

June 27, 2008 4:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's not quite on the same scale, but The House With A Clock In Its Walls, a 1978 gothic novel (for kids?) by John Bellairs involved somewhat the same concept. don't look at the wikipedia page if you haven't read it - spoilers!

the illustrations are amazing & continue to introduce new generations of pre-teens to the work of Edward Gorey...

June 30, 2008 4:03 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Jean, it's funny that you mention that, actually, because I was a huge John Bellairs fan as a kid. He was my favorite author when I was nine or two years old. I read almost all of his books, in fact, and The House With A Clock In Its Walls was the first one I found.

June 30, 2008 4:36 AM  
Blogger Rich Rostrom said...

There are some ancient pagodas in Japan that were built with IIRC much of the weight suspended for earthquake resistance.

July 20, 2008 2:49 AM  

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