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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Transforming The Earth

Humanity's home is far from factory-fresh these days. Frankly, the Earth has received its share of scratches and dents, including large asteroid impacts, megavolcanoes, earthquakes, ice ages, and heat waves. It's to be expected. There are over four billion years on the clock, after all.

Though it has long been clear that Earth 1.0 is in need of an upgrade, it was not until a few years ago that someone began to take the notion seriously. In 2004, at a respected international design exhibition called the Venice Architecture Biennale, a young artist and architect named Christian Waldvogel displayed his plans for total global annihilation and the creation of Earth 2.0.

According to Waldvogel, a brave new world could be built from the remains of our current one. The circumference of this construction– dubbed Globus Cassus, or 'hollow sphere' in Latin– would be comparable to the giant planet Saturn. During the multi-million year assembly period, massive hoses would worm deep into the Earth's fiery bowels and suck liquid metal and magma into orbit through four space elevators sited at equal distances around the equator. This material would be squirted out and transformed into a lattice framework to support the rest of the edifice. As the Earth gradually shrivels and shrinks under this onslaught, its gravity would weaken. Over generations, the skies would darken with the relentless encroachment of the enormous structure above.

Of course it would be easy to dismiss the idea as ridiculous fantasy, one belonging only on the pages of the very pulpiest science fiction. Yet the Globus Cassus concept is outlined in all seriousness, with the same level of detail as befits any other entry in an eminent international architectural exposition. While there is much that is quibble-worthy about the plan– both in engineering terms and in its underlying rationale– Waldvogel makes a good case for the idea as an intellectual and philosophical exercise. He presents his scheme as both an architectural design, and as a thought experiment that could turn the way we think about our current planet– and human society– inside out.

Globus Cassus under constructionGlobus Cassus under constructionWaldwogel's suggestion involves the redistribution of the Earth's material from its present clumpy solid-ball form to that of a 150 km (93 mi) thick hollow shell– one with a diameter of 85,000 km (52,817 mi), around seven times that of our current planet. People, plants and animals would live on the inside surface, with rotation of the giant habitat providing a centrifugal gravity-effect to hold everything in place. The habitable surface area would be approximately ten times that of the Earth's. The geometrical construction would take the form of a rounded twenty-faced icosahedron, with air, sea and lands of plenty located on the equatorial regions, and continent-scale silica glass windows allowing sunlight into the interior.

The design appears commendably thorough. Dimensions are calculated carefully with an architect's attention to detail. The symmetrical construction processes, materials used, and function of the space elevator 'scaffolding' are described exhaustively. Even the issue of temporary accommodation for the future occupants is addressed: it's proposed that while construction takes place, humans, plants and animals wait patiently– through countless successive generations– in holding areas or archival nodes in the space elevators. Nor is the provision of basic amenities like air and water overlooked. When the excavated Earth shrivels to a size where gravity can no longer retain its atmosphere and hydrosphere, the envisaged migration of gas and liquid onto the equatorial regions of the newly-built structure is described poetically as the “Great Rains”. Waldvogel uses detailed computer graphics to illustrate his ideas, and has even published a glossy coffee-table book with colourful pictures depicting the construction of his idealized new world, and the irreversible destruction of our current one.

Yet curiously there are numerous objections to the concept. Perhaps the most fundamental relates to the construction material. Our current understanding of physics dictates that no molecular bonds in any conceivable material could ever be sufficiently strong to hold the structure together: certainly Waldvogel's proposed ferrous-nickel framework would be hopelessly inadequate. Globus Cassus would simply come apart from the internal stresses of its rotation and tidal forces from the Moon and the Sun. Carbon nanotubes form one of the strongest currently-known molecular structures, and are frequently proposed as a construction material for futuristic engineering projects– but even their great tensile strength would be insufficient to keep the hollow habitat in one piece.
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