Ramps in Higher Gravity

Ramps get more useful in higher gravity.

You’re probably wondering what kind of nonsense I’m going on about now, aren’t you? “McCoy,” you’re saying, “that diet your wife has you on has driven you straight around the bend, hasn’t it?”

Well, it hasn’t. At least not mostly. Hardly any, really.

Anyhow, ramps at different gravity levels: generally speaking, they’re much more useful at the higher ones. If you’re in zero g, just floating around, a ramp is going to be pretty pointless. As gravity gets higher, though, more and more solutions for bridging vertical distances (or, as I prefer to call it, going up and down) become infeasible.

Elevators, for instance, become useless really fast. Materials technology just isn’t able yet to create a material that can maintain the tensile strength necessary for lifts, elevators, etc. Same thing for pulleys and lifts. Building a high gravity ramp, though, doesn’t require expensive, crazy space materials—it requires dirt. Just dirt. Good old fashioned, boring dirt. Just start piling it up, and there you go.

As far as I know, there’s only one book where a ramp saves the day, and that’s Mission of Gravity, by Hal Clement. It takes place on this weird planet with enormous gravity that actually changes between the poles and the equator. It’s weird, but the math works out. Anyhow, these little centipede aliens who live there are hired to retrieve a human probe near one pole, where the gravity is highest, and they end up using a ramp to retrieve the probe’s computer at the end. My oldest son found it for me, back in the kids’ rocket-ship-loving days. Not much of a reader, but I liked that book well enough.

“McCoy,” you ask, “that’s all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t actually answer my question. Are you thinking about heavy gravity because the diet’s working and you’ve lost weight? Or have you been cheating on the diet and actually gaining weight?”

Well, let’s just say Maggie wasn’t happy when she found me taking apart our scale to try and gimmick it to read my weight lower than it is.

On Runaway Truck Ramps

If you’ve ever taken I-70 through the Rockies, you’ve probably seen those steep gravel turnoffs leading up from the road, then abruptly dead-ending, as well as all the signs advertising them.

Those are runaway truck ramps, and they’re for semis whose brakes have blown.

The idea is pretty simple: an out-of-control truck can’t stop, so the driver keeps his foot off the gas, waits for a truck ramp, then expends all the truck’s momentum going up it.

In practice, though, these ramps are pretty complicated.

First off, you’ve got to make sure the truck won’t roll back down. One way to do that is to have a long flat stretch after an initial rise (though this obviously doesn’t work in the Rockies).

Another version uses sand to absorb all the momentum: semi tires are big, but not big enough to take a semi through sand. The problem with sand ramps is that the semis have a tendency to flip on them.

Finally, there are the ones made of loose, ungraded gravel. They work great but rip up tires and undercarriages.

Steep gravel ramps—like the ones on I-70 are the most common. Moderate damage is better than overturning or rolling back onto the road. It’s not an overly complicated issue, but the sheer force of a fast-moving semi complicates the solution, especially since they’re nowhere near as durable as they are in movies.

All of that said: never, ever drive a non-semi vehicle up there. It will not survive.

Those Star Wars & Trek Ramps

I never really watched much science fiction as a kid, but my boys loved it. Dragged me to all those Star Wars movies, always had Star Trek and all those other space shows on the TV. I can’t say as I’m a huge fan now, but I can definitely see the appeal. (Except for robots. We’ve already lost enough jobs to them; manufacturing lines hardly even need people anymore.)

Something always bothered me about a lot of those movies, though, and I only recently figured out what.

In Star Wars, when they want to travel between ships they climb the ramp into a shuttle, raise the ramp, fly over, lower the ramp. When they’re delivering cargo, same thing. It makes sense.

In Star Trek, though, they have teleporters, and they use them all the time. I don’t know if that stuff is possible, but it just nagged at me until I realized: they’re basically like lifts.

When you’re loading or unloading something, a ramp is almost always going to be cheaper, easier, and faster. Not always by much, but it will be. Less upkeep, too. I don’t know how much power teleporters use, but I feel like it can’t be cheap to run one. Plus, the teleporters come out in those nice, carpeted rooms. They can’t possibly load all their stuff from there. There’d be marks all over the carpet.

Since they have imitation gravity on those things, why don’t they just lower the gravity there and push them up ramps like they’re full of feathers? Heck, you’ll be saving on power this way.

I know I’m being nitpicky here, but it kinda feels like the writers on the show assumed that technology would get rid of the need for logistics. You’re always going to need to load and unload things, no matter how many years in the future you are and, if you ask me, teleporters aren’t going to replace ramps anytime soon.

You know the first thing I see when I Google “ramps”? (Ignoring those constant ads, of course). A Wikipedia article on ramps. It’s a pretty well researched and detailed article, too, listing all sorts of uses for ramps, their discovery and history, even festivals dedicated to them!

The only problem, though, isn’t about inclined planes. It’s about a plant. Specifically: Allium tricoccum,  also known as wild leeks.

So when you Google one of the most important inventions in human history—one of the basic simple machines that makes civilization work—you get a smelly weed that some people like to eat. Maybe it’s just me: I think the invention that allowed us to build the pyramids is a little more important than a backyard pest that makes food smell like old socks.

At least if you search on Wikipedia itself, inclined planes are the first thing to pop up. Whoever runs that site seems to know what they’re doing, unlike those culinary-minded dudes at Google. It’s all that time inside, I’m telling you. It’s not healthy. You need fresh air and sunlight every day, so you don’t end up drooling over random greenery from your yard.

And no, this rant wasn’t inspired by the new diet Maggie is putting me on. It’s a legitimate complaint. I mean, I don’t mind cutting back on red meat even more. I like fish and poultry just fine. I hardly drink more than a beer or two anymore, and I’ve been watching my cholesterol since my bypass 15 years ago.

I really just think that it’s not going to hurt me to eat proper vegetables you find in the grocery store, not expensive health food store stuff I could pull out of my neighbor’s yard. (The one without the dogs, at least. Nice dogs, but I’m not eating anything out of that yard.)

That’s not the point, though. I just think that Google is doing inclined planes a real disservice.

Ancient Ramp Construction

Information on the Internet about the construction of the great cities and monuments of the Mesoamerican and South American cultures is surprisingly hard to find, it turns out.

The Aztecs were real tricky to find stuff on. Almost every supposed “source” detailing its construction techniques immediately starts going on about how they sacrificed people during construction, then doesn’t bother to actually discuss the techniques they used. I’m no trained historian, but that seems like sensationalism to me, and it sure doesn’t answer my questions.

There are a few interesting tidbits out there, though. Teotihuacan, one of the major Aztec sites, was actually constructed over a thousand years before the Aztecs gained power, by someone else entirely.

The Inca and Mayan empires have a bit more out there to easily find. I had to dig through a lot of nonsense about Mayan prophecies and their mass disappearance, but there was a lot of good stuff. Like this: They actually used a primitive form of limestone-based concrete for much of their construction.

The Incans were the easiest to find information on, since most of the stuff on the Internet is about their construction techniques anyhow. Their buildings were famed for being constructed of huge stone blocks in irregular patterns that for together perfectly, without gaps. You can’t even stick a knife between the stones.

People go crazy over that, some even going so far as to say that there were aliens helping the Incans. (Some nuts out there.) I think it says more about contractors today than it does about ancient construction. Tight seams just take good workmanship.

The stones in Incan constructions were placed by dragging them up huge earthen ramps on log rollers. Interestingly enough, they took the opposite approach to the ramps than the Egyptians, who just put together giant straight ramps. The reason they could do that when the Egyptians couldn’t is pretty simple: the Incan Empire was huge. It was basically the Rome of South America. It could afford to just throw manpower at problems until they were solved.

They did save a little money by using locally quarried limestone or granite, but the empire was wealthy and powerful enough that it could have shipped them halfway across Peru on their excellent system of roads if the whim overtook them. We have tons of archaeological evidence for the Incan ramps, and a few—even still—partially exist.