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I guess making a tower out of ivory would make little to no practical sense as opposed to making a tower out of wood, stone, concrete, or other materials. I suppose building a literal ivory tower would be immensely costly and, if the world elephant population was not go extinct, would possibly have to be an endavor spanning a few generations.

Still, such a tower would be awesome as per the rule of cool. A dominating empire, or kindgom, during its glory days, could build such a tower for its capital city's academic community, just to show off to other countries in the region: hey guys, look, we are the superpower here, we're so damn rich we could afford it, our humanities and science is so magnificent that it really fits for our leading academia to be located in this kind of facility, we are the alpha apes on this continent!

(Dazzling with glamor is known in the real world, look at Dubai for example)

However... Is it feasible at all?

Can we, realistically, get enough ivory for such a tower? Can we get enough ivory without driving the world elephant population to extinction? Is ivory solid enough to support a large tower? Are the costs sky-high realistic or sky-high unrealistic?

ANd if at all possible, no cheating please. Ivory tower is ivory tower, not concrete / stone / metal / whatever tower with ivory embelishments. What is not a window should be made of ivory.

Time setting? I suppose that paradoxically it doesn't matter now, as the answers would be the same for ancient Rome and today... but if I'm wrong, what is the minimal technological advancement setting that could support such a tower?

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  • $\begingroup$ A literal ivory tower would be one to two meter tall, simply the tusk of the elephant standing upright, in which a small enough fairy is living. Because: The literary ivory tower must, if I say so myself, stem from the German '''Elfenbein''' (ivory), where Elf seems to be a mix-up of "elf" (German ''Elb'' or ''Elf'', also ''Alp''or ''Alb'' as in ''Albtraum'' - ''nightmare'') and "eleph" as in "elephant", with a pinch of "alb" (''white'', as in ''albino'', ''alabaster''). While "Bein" (''leg'') is an archaic term for bone. Ivory tower then would be an ironic term, the irony of which is lost on $\endgroup$ – Irovy_Jestman Mar 14 '18 at 9:44
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – James Mar 15 '18 at 17:02

11 Answers 11

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The critical property for building a tower out of ivory (or any other material, for that matter) is its compressive strength. Strength data for ivory is surprisingly hard to find, and the few references I could find are for the tensile strength, not the compressive strength.

Using human dentin as a proxy for elephant ivory, we can estimate the compressive strength at around 300 MPa. This is comparable to mild steel (250 MPa), and superior to common tower-building materials such as brick, concrete, and granite (80 MPa, 43 MPa, and 130 MPa respectively). From an engineering standpoint, it looks like ivory would do just fine as a construction material.

Getting enough ivory to build a tower is a different matter. A pair of elephant tusks can get you perhaps 100 kg of ivory. If you're lucky, you can turn that into 30 or so bricks. Even a small tower, 3 meters across and 10 meters high, requires around 700 elephants for the outer walls alone, not counting any floors or interior partitions.

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    $\begingroup$ (+1) The existence of a massive elephant graveyard where elephants have come to die for the last twenty thousand years could provide with thousands of elephant skeletons to extract the ivory. You don't need to hunt. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Mar 12 '18 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure it means ivory coated. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Mar 12 '18 at 15:20
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    $\begingroup$ All materials have tiny flaws and microscopic cracks invisible to the naked eye. In a brittle material in compression, these cracks close up and carry load normally. However, these cracks grow very quickly under tensile stress. For this reason, brittle materials can have very different tensile and compression strengths. This does not apply to ductile materials, which are far better at resisting sudden crack extension. The reason you cannot find specific call outs of compression strength for ivory is that they are about the same. $\endgroup$ – BobTheAverage Mar 12 '18 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ To add: Your briks don't need to be 100% ivory. You can powder it and use it to produce bricks (maybe with some sort of special white ceramic) saving a lot of elephants and maybe increasing it's structural properties $\endgroup$ – jean Mar 12 '18 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ The people at the 金沙 site collected around that many elephant tusks about three thousand years ago. Here's a link (Chinese), and the wikipedia page, although they don't mention the elephants (I'm not seeing any good English links). $\endgroup$ – martin Mar 13 '18 at 3:16
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It's definitely possible in certain fantasy settings, some of which would even allow the tower to be carved from a single tusk.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure that killing one of those four elephants would result in the end of the world though... $\endgroup$ – Arperum Mar 12 '18 at 10:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Arperum Yeah, but the tower would be AWESOME, so... worth it? :) $\endgroup$ – Imperator Mar 12 '18 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ You are likely to be able to get some ivory from the elephants tusks without ending the world, since the elephants don't seem to be giving much use to them. Fortunately, the question asked about feasibility, not about ethical concerns, but getting the elephant's permission could be a good idea. $\endgroup$ – Pere Mar 12 '18 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Arperum ahh, but there was a Fifth Elephant. $\endgroup$ – Mr.Mindor Mar 12 '18 at 16:18
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    $\begingroup$ I knew it! Earth is FLAT! Evidence at last. Though I always thought it was a giant eagle in space but I'm willing to accept I may have been wrong $\endgroup$ – Kai Qing Mar 12 '18 at 21:59
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The building itself is doable. Ivory is what teeth are made of, and they are made for compressive strength. You might need some architectural adjustments for load-bearing structures, to compensate for ivory's poor tensile strength. The tower is going to look decidedly romanesque, with barrel vaults and small windows.

But, given the sheer amount of ivory required, you're right that this is a multi-generation (multi-century, even) endeavour whatever you do. And, clearly, hunting elephants is never going to work.

So it would make a lot of sense to breed elephants for large tusks (currently, the opposite is happening, with good results - tusk size and even occurrence is esteemed to have decreased as much as 40% in the last centuries). You want to breed them for size, growth speed and structural strength.

It turns out that zoo elephants fare poorly in that respect ("stress, lack of exercise and overweight" being blamed for that). Actually, taking the long view, it turns out that you want the elephants (especially the males) to live a long life with the less possible need for defending against predators, digging in hard and rocky terrain for water and/or roots, and battling for territory. Older elephants are the most productive source for the best ivory.

Economically, you need to do the exact opposite of what ivory hunters do. You really don't want a small market with huge prices. What you do then is create and maintain the largest possible reserve for elephants to roam free in, and encourage the best specimens to breed; but apparently this is what they already tend to do, so you just need to leave them alone and let them do the work.

Graveyards

When elephants grow old, their molar teeth become less and less functional and their dietary habits change. In the end, they'll become hermit elephants and roam less and less far from the area where easily chewed food can be obtained, and in that area they will eventually die. By carefully landscaping and maintaining the grass varieties throughout the reserve, you can establish areas especially suited for elder bulls, which will therefore become "elephants' graveyards". Once the elephant population is large enough, monitoring these comparatively small areas should guarantee a steady supply of the best possible ivory.

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    $\begingroup$ You know a lot about elephants. Very +1 $\endgroup$ – Mad Physicist Mar 12 '18 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ Does this mean that if the UN decided to rebuild their New York Headquarters by using ivory as the primary building material, this would virtually ensure the elephants' conservation? What are they waiting for? $\endgroup$ – Schmuddi Mar 13 '18 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ It would also cost an awful lot of money $\endgroup$ – LSerni Mar 13 '18 at 20:28
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I'm guessing you'd consider this cheating, but seriously: what's wrong with an ivory facade? It's pretty common for the core of a building to be constructed with one material, but the exterior facade gives it the appearance that it was constructed with something else. A good modern example is brick veneer over a wood and plaster structure.

Brick Veneer

Assuming sufficient supply in your world, you could cover every exterior and interior surface of your ivory tower with ivory to give it the appearance that it was used as a construction material, while the load-bearing elements use a more appropriate (and cheaper) construction material for your world. This would absolutely satisfy your goal of using this massive ivory display as a demonstration of wealth while still making the existence of the tower feasible.

EDIT: Another really good example is modern skyscrapers. Obviously the exterior glass is not load bearing, but if you showed someone a skyscraper who completely lacked the context for what they were looking at, they'd think the building was made out of glass. But really what's going on is that the weight of the building is carried by a core structure, and the exterior glass is supported by each floor.

Core construction

I'm fairly confident that a "glass skyscraper" is basically a direct analogue to your "ivory tower". You could choose to explain the core structure architecture, or handwave away architectural technology as a protected trade secret or even "lost technology of the ancients" kind of thing. You could use the Ogier race from the Wheel Of Time as a kind of backstory template.

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    $\begingroup$ You could also use thin layers and basically "unroll" the ivory. Not sure how difficult that would be. A facade is also historically accurate - The Great Pyramid was originally covered in highly polished limestone. $\endgroup$ – Andon Mar 12 '18 at 2:48
  • $\begingroup$ I like this answer, make it from concrete use a white exterior facade call a fancy arquitect and call it the way you want $\endgroup$ – jean Mar 13 '18 at 10:38
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What do you mean

if at all possible, no cheating please.

So let me bend the rules...

Others have addressed the building of a tower with this material.

If you have sufficient technology, you could just 3d print ivory.

We are already experimenting with this (well not for ivory) it's called

3D bioprinting

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3D_bioprinting

Three dimensional (3D) bioprinting is the utilization of 3D printing and 3D printing–like techniques to combine cells, growth factors, and biomaterials to fabricate biomedical parts that maximally imitate natural tissue characteristics.

So with enough sophistication, you could bio print as much ivory as you need. You could also bio print it in larger sheets more suitable for facing a building. I would go with a facade of ivory, with a traditional structure underneath. If ivory is susceptible to the environment, you could coat it in something that is not. This could easily done as part of the printing process.

For all intents and purposes it would be natural ivory, does it matter if it's taken from an animal or grown in a vat? So to speak.

For time setting:

I would say it would have to be post-modern. For one the building practices of the modern age, has allowed us to bring together different materials. Materials that on there own you cant build from, but when combined make nice structures. Think of wall board, and 2x4's individually they are not so nice. A house would be pretty boring with just 2x4s and wall board is not really structural, it can t support another story on it's own. In the same regard is modern buildings with things like marble facades or glass and so on. We literally have countless materials we can use now. Throughout most of human history you had, wood, stone, earth (bricks, mud) and maybe plaster.

The other reason is sourcing the material, I think getting natural ivory is going to be quite difficult. You could hand wave something in, like some graveyard of mastodons. Some large animal with a large amount of ivory. Magic, or something else. So given that, you might as well use technology, it's no less plausible then any other means. I think you will be hard pressed without some amount of hand waving to rationalize that amount of natural animal material.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the realization that not-so-distant-future tech might drastically change the difficulty of this proposition. $\endgroup$ – ThunderGuppy Mar 13 '18 at 17:36
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Ivory is not a suitable building material, as it is a substance that will degrade quickly and heavily over time from exposure to the elements. From Wikipedia:

Ivory is hygroscopic and anisotropic, tending to shrink, swell, crack, split, and/or warp on exposure to extremes or fluctuations in relative humidity and temperature, It is subject to photolytic color change. Its organic compounds decompose by hydrolysis with prolonged exposure to water, while its inorganic compounds are attacked by acids. Deteriorated ivory is porous, brittle, and prone to impact damage and delamination. Many conservation problems are caused by previous conservation treatments such as incompatible and degraded coatings, adhesives, and attempts at reconstruction.

Check out the article for more information.

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    $\begingroup$ Just coat it in a layer of clear plastic material. $\endgroup$ – ArtisticPhoenix Mar 13 '18 at 7:26
  • $\begingroup$ @ArtisticPhoenix because you dont use clear plastic outside. clear plastic yellows in sunlight, for example headlights on cars. Not only that, plastic will expand and contract due to heat and cold, eventually leaking, just like headlights on cars. $\endgroup$ – Keltari Mar 13 '18 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ Use some epoxy resin then. I am sure in all the world there is some clear material that will keep the weather off the ivory, that was my point. $\endgroup$ – ArtisticPhoenix Mar 13 '18 at 19:12
  • $\begingroup$ You could even print a thin layer of glass on top of it, so sealing it in probably is a solvable engineering problem, it seems trivial compared to growing the Ivory. $\endgroup$ – ArtisticPhoenix Mar 13 '18 at 19:18
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    $\begingroup$ It's still ivory, is your car made of paint, no its made of metal covered in paint. $\endgroup$ – ArtisticPhoenix Mar 13 '18 at 23:03
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I'd stick together a few wonderful answers from here:

  • A single tusk is about 100 kg
  • You can unroll dentine or even grid it into a powder and add glue. So, I assume that all 100 kg of ivory go into the building
  • Ivory is more or less as good for construction as steel
  • We might still end with steel-ivory complexes for the core, but I disregard it here
  • Eiffel tower weights around 8,000 tons, Empire State Building is estimated at 364,000 tons without inhabitants. (Per http://stupidquestionarchives.blogspot.de/2008/03/empire-state-building-weight.html)

So, a very crude computation says than we'd need 40,000 elephants for ivory Eiffel tower and 1,820,000 elephants for ivory Empire State Building. This is using two tusks from an elephant, notice that females have smaller/different tusks and we do not put all other teeth in the grinder.

Between 1980 and 1990 the population of African elephants was more than halved, from 1.3 million to around 600,000

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_elephant

In 2003, the wild population was estimated at between 41,410 and 52,345 individuals.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asian_elephant

So, taking a local African empire (Zulu?), building an ivory Eiffel tower seems doable (even if a moral no-go), an ivory skyscraper would require harvesting mammoth tusks, discovering elephant graveyards, or an extensive breeding program.

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Theoretically, one could raise these animals in captivity and slaughter them for their tusks, while preserving the skin/etc; for other uses-- Keep in mind that elephants aren't the only animal that produces ivory. (Walruses, Hippos, even a couple types of birds, I believe.) It isn't impossible, but would likely be a very drawn out process and kill alot of animals. Tusks do not grow back, so once harvested you've put the animal in a very bad position. Good question!

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding Brandon! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Mar 14 '18 at 20:22
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Very large elephants are the answer. The tusks would be strong enough to build a modest tower. In some parts of the world you can see structures made out of whale bones, after all.

Genetically engineered, really big elephants. Preferably hairy. Maybe they could shed their tusks at intervals, like some deer do.

Maybe there is some barren, cold part of your fantasy world where giant hairy mammoths could roam at will, maybe accompanied by mammoth-herders. They would of course be revered as gods, complete with human sacrifice and festivals.

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A previous version of this answer had some language and insinuations that were abrasive and my intentions were not clear. I apologize for that, particularly to the OP, as well as to all the users at large as I do value my inclusion in this community. I have re-written the answer as follows...

Let me come at this from another angle: If the character who is ordering the tower to be built is a tyrant, then yes, an ivory tower is feasible. It would take a tyrannical type personality to even want an ivory tower and it would take a tyrant to kill all the elephants required to build anything that could be considered a tower. That is just my opinion, but I believe it to be true. Truly rich and powerful people just don't do that sort of thing or else Jeff Besos, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates would have ivory towers.

So if your character is a tyrant he can send out all his minions to kill all the elephants they can find and bring back their tusks. Then he'd have his slaves (a tyrant would have those too) build the thing for him.

Now I imagine that he'd need to have built a structure of some kind first (wooden, brick, etc.) to put the ivory on. Ivory itself wouldn't be the building material. Not good for that. There are some carvings made of the stuff, but not huge structures.

So some of your needs might not be met -

He probably would drive the local elephant population to extinction, and depending on how arrogant this tyrant is he might want a really big tower, so he might send his minions all over the world for even more ivory, thus widening the influence of how wiped out the elephants could be.

And the tower would not be 100% ivory. It needs an initial structure to hang the ivory on, as ivory itself its not a great building material.

This answer assumes modern day technology where we don't have magical or sci-fi means of "creating" ivory, and it also assumes the "cool" factor (from the OP's question) that would come with having real ivory as opposed to an artificial or manufactured version of it.

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The problem with your question is that elephants are not merely part of a ecosystem to be managed or a resource to be managed.

Just as members of the species Homo sapiens hope that objective extraterrestrial observers would consider them to be semi or even fully intelligent beings and thus worthy of being considered people with rights, there are many other species on Earth that might be considered semi or even fully intelligent beings by objective extraterrestrial observers, beings that might deserve some or all of the rights belonging to people.

Until and unless society can be absolutely certain that such beings are not intelligent beings, it is safer to act as if we were certain they are intelligent beings and punish killing them as if it were an act of murder. Because if we do so needlessly, the bad results will be a lot smaller than if we need to do so and don't.

And the three surviving species of elephants are among the species of close to human intelligence that should be treated like people.

So if you are writing a fantasy story, you might have a scene where Emperor Ru-thlyss XIII is attending the laying the foundation stone for his pet project, a literal ivory tower for his university. And suddenly a space time vortex appears and out pour men and armored elephants who scatter the crowd, slaughter the bodyguards, and capture Emperor Ru-thlyss.

Ru-thlyss is told that in the distant future wizards (in his ivory tower, ironically) discovered that elephants are people and learned how to communicate with them. Because elephants still remember the great ivory hunt that decimated them in the time of Ru-thlyss, human and elephant wizards discovered a way to travel back in time to stop Ru-thlyss and his great ivory hunt.

So now they have taken over the Imperial government and will decree the death penalty for any person who dares to kill an elephant or make any object out of ivory. Ex-Emperor Ru-thlyss will be the first person tortured to death under the new law.

All teeth are made of ivory, and in the world today, if you are thinking of a contemporary story, many millions of persons are born every year and many millions of children a few years old lose their baby teeth. In some societies it is common for children to be paid for their baby teeth by the "tooth fairy", and of course a wealthy enough government could buy all the baby teeth in the world.

And of course many millions of people die every year and a wealthy enough government could pay to harvest the teeth of many of them.

Millions of farm animals are slaughtered every year and I am sure that bones and teeth are harvested and put to some economic use. A wealthy government could buy millions of teeth per year.

Walrus ivory was an important historical alternate source of ivory. The government could try capturing, breeding, and raising Walruses in ever increasing numbers for their tusks.

in a fantasy world, wizards could use spells to track all the tusks and all the teeth of all the elephants in the world. Whenever a tooth fell out of an elephant's mouth, or was swallowed and excreted, or a tusk broke off, or an elephant died, wizards would be magically alerted to the location and use spells to obtain the ivory. Maybe the wizards could also use magic to gather no longer needed teeth from sperm whales.

And in a science fictional setting perhaps technology could do most of what I imagined spells doing. Tiny robot "insects" could fly into elephants mouths and attach tiny trackers to teeth and tusks, for example.

A fantasy story could have wizards seek out elephant graveyards where elephants go to die, loaded with the ivory of elephant generations.

And there is prehistoric ivory dug up from dead mammoths in northern lands.

Genetic engineering could probably be used to make millions of farm animals grow long tusks out of their mouths and other body parts.

Ancient Greeks made often gigantic chryselephantine statues of gods, with wooden frames and thin gold sheets molded into clothing and thin ivory sheets molded to form the flesh. It is claimed that the Greek sculptors had techniques to soften ivory tusks and unroll the concentric layers they were composed of to get thin sheets of ivory much wider than the thicknesses of the tusks. They would mold the ivory sheets onto molds to give it shape before the ivory stiffened.

Since ivory is a rare material, and since the ivory tower will be more impressive the more floor space it has, it should be as close to spherical as it can, because a sphere encloses the most volume for the least amount of expensive ivory cladding - I have grave doubts about the structural strength of ivory.

Thus I can imagine an ivory clad building shaped like a hemisphere 500 feet wide and 250 feet high. Of course that might not be towering enough to be an ivory tower.

Or the tower might be a cylinder 500 hundred feet tall and 250 feet high topped by a dome 500 feet wide and 250 feet tall.

Or the cylinder could be 500 feet wide and 500 feet tall, with a 250 foot high dome on top.

Or the cylinder could be 500 feet wide and 750 feet tall, with a 250 foot high dome on top.

Maybe the tower could have a cylinder 250 feet wide and 250 feet tall, supporting a three quarters dome 500 feet wide and 375 feet tall for a total height of 625 feet tall.

Or for a more tower like form the the tower could be a cylinder 100 feet in diameter by 1,000 feet tall.

I have to say that whenever I think of an ivory tower I picture a marble tower, to be precise, the Leaning Tower of Pisa as it would have looked if it never leaned.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leaning_Tower_of_Pisa_(April_2012).jpg1

http://www.theflairsophy.com/2017/10/the-leaning-tower-of-pisa-italy.html2

Ivory consists mostly of dentin. It should be possible to synthisize dentin, and if can be synthisized it can be done on a massive industrial scale.

Dentin rates approximately 3 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness.3

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dentin3

And dentist study the properties of human dentin in a tooth environment. But I am not sure where to find the properties of dentin as a construction material.

You should assume that ivory and dentin is only useful as a cladding material and not as a structural material. And to prevent weathering and pollution problems the ivory should be encased in a clear transparent material that protects it from such effects.

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    $\begingroup$ Is the punishment actually characteristic of how the ivory was harvested, or not? I cannot tell if that story would be so–called “revenge porn” or not. $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food Mar 11 '18 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ I don't normally upvote things that don't answer the question, but this is by far the best off-topic, possibly trollish polemic I've seen on this site, so +1. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Mar 12 '18 at 21:03
  • $\begingroup$ On the contrary this does answer the question by investigating methods by which the construction of an ivory tower might be accomplished. QED $\endgroup$ – a4android Mar 13 '18 at 12:51

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