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Devilish polygons speak of past stress

4:42pm, September 27, 2002

From Minneapolis, at a meeting of the American Physical Society

The colorful names remain, such as Devil's Postpile and Giant's Causeway. Long abandoned, however, are fearsome notions that supernatural beings made these spectacular rock formations in California, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere.

These close-packed, orderly arrays of rock columns, some of them hundreds of meters tall, formed as lava slowly cooled and contracted, scientists believe. However, the exact mechanism that yielded shafts with polygon-shaped cross sections remains obscure.

A pair of physicists intrigued with the arrays have presented a new explanation. Computer simulations and a simple experiment with cornstarch support their view, they contend.

Alberto G. Rojo of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Eduardo A. Jagla of the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, draw upon earlier studies of how fractures of the lava forming these st

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