Think of this as less of a racial unrest story and more of a curious media analysis mystery. By now you’re surely aware of the recent spate of statues being torn down by rioters exploiting the George Floyd protests. Originally, we were seeing the usual list of subjects being attacked, mostly in the form of Confederate Civil War monuments. But since then, it’s spread to everything from bronze images of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln to Spanish Conquistadors. Tearing down a sizable, heavy monument can be hard work, however, and potentially dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Stepping into the breach this week is the magazine Popular Mechanics. Author James Stout offers up some “helpful” advice on how to understand all of the physics involved and the most efficient way to accomplish the task. The title seems straightforward enough. How to Topple a Statue Using Science. The real question isn’t so much the accuracy of the engineering information being offered, but the reason for publishing such an obviously confrontational and politically charged article in a magazine that generally avoids such messiness. As you’ll see, most (but not all) of the article reads like a straight engineering paper.
The force required to pull down a statue isn’t as great as you think, says mechanical engineer Scott Holland. Most statues are bronze, using an alloy of 90 percent copper and 10 percent tin and a maximum thickness of 3/16 of an inch. The Statue of Liberty’s copper sheeting is only 3/32 of an inch thick, for comparison.
Holland says your average statue of a person tops out at around 3,500 pounds. (FYI: A horse statue is approximately 7,000 pounds.) Meanwhile, the OSHA-mandated upper force limit for horizontal pulling per person is 50 pounds of force—“but that’s for working every day,” he says, “so you could probably do twice that.”
At 100 pounds of force, then, we’re talking about a 35-person job to drag the statue, Holland says. But to pull it down, “let’s assume twice the force—so you’ll need twice as many people.” So before you start toppling, you’d better recruit 70 buddies with a bit of muscle.
From there, the author goes on to imagine any number of other ways to destroy the edifice. These range from using more commonly available tools like propane torches to imaginative (though highly unlikely) science experiments using thermite reactions or large quantities of liquid nitrogen. As I said, much of the article deals with the literal nuts and bolts of the problem at hand, positing facts ranging from the typical weight of statues to the construction materials used in erecting them.
So, was the author just engaging in a fun bit of creative science and engineering geekery, choosing a topic that’s been in the news recently as a vehicle to do so? Or are we seeing some signs of wokeness sneaking into the pages of this traditionally apolitical publication? The first clue might be found in the introduction, which deals far less with science than the social upheaval in our streets. Stout speaks about the “legacy of racism” and “problematic monuments.” He also refers to the subject of one of these monuments as “the inanimate racist who’s been dead for a century anyway.”
Digging a little further, we can look at Stout’s Linkedin page. He’s a professor of history at Mesa College and his varied interests definitely have strong hints of social justice reform running through them. So while his science may be solid, it’s not hard to imagine that this article was printed with a message in mind other than how to most safely and efficiently remove a large metal object.
Or, you can just go scroll through the most recent entries in Stout’s Twitter feed and learn all you need to know. The mystery will be solved if you do. Full-blown leftist craziness, publishing under the rather thin veneer of presenting a scientific discussion.
I wonder if Popular Mechanics will come to regret the decision to approve this piece. I tweeted a link to it before deciding to write about it and the initial reactions from a couple of my followers suggest that Stout’s piece may be landing with a thud.
@popmech has long been an apolitical, level-headed magazine, especially compared with Popular Science. I've bookmarked useful articles like "How to Build a Workbench."
I'm angry they published this, and I'll bring it up with my father, who is a subscriber. Shame on them.
— Tim Hamilton (@TSHamiltonAstro) June 17, 2020
I’m not a subscriber, but I frequently visit your website and have purchased individual copies when I needed reading material. Never again.
— Fred the Great (@fredontwittur) June 17, 2020