From orbital elevators to space cannons, some of the most ambitious visionary projects in history are not as ‘impossible’ as they seem.
In 1603, a Jesuit priest invented a machine to lift the entire planet with only ropes and pulleys.
Christoph Grienberger reviewed all the mathematical works written by Jesuit authors, a function similar to that of a modern scientific journal editor.
He calculated, based on the 1:10 ratio, that if a pulley was able to allow a person to lift 10 times the weight of an object without help, if someone had 24 gears connected to a conveyor, they could then lift the Earth. .. very slowly.
Like any modern scholar who values theory over practice, he left out the unpleasant details: “I will not weave these ropes, nor will I determine the material for the pulleys or the place where the machine will be suspended: as are other issues, I leave them for others to find out. “
You can see what Grienberger’s theoretical device was like here.
Since the advent of mathematics, visionary scholars like Grienberger have tried to imagine the extreme limits of engineering, even if the technology was not available at the time.
Over the centuries, they have dreamed of machines to lift the world, transform the Earth’s surface or even reorganize the Universe.
This “mega-scale engineering” – sometimes called macroengineering – deals with ambitious projects that would reshape the planet or build objects of unimaginable sizes.
What can these mega-scale futuristic dreams tell us about human ingenuity and imagination?
The origins of mega-scale engineering date back to ancient Greeks. Archimedes is famous for many things, but he boasted of one: “Give me a foothold and I will move the Earth!”
He was referring to the levers: he knew that, with a fixed axis, a very long lever is capable of exerting tremendous force. Just as Grienberger’s machine did with pulleys, his understanding of this mechanics made it irresistible to speculate on problems of magnitude far beyond any practical question.
Since then, whenever a law of physics was attested as universal, the next natural step was to expand it and explore the theoretical consequences.
Isaac Newton noted that the law describing the Earth’s gravity was applied to both apples and the Moon. So, long before space travel became a reality, he pointed out that a powerful cannon could, in principle, be enlarged to propel a satellite in Earth orbit. The idea was later described in the science fiction work From Earth to the Moon – Direct Travel in 97 Hours and 20 Minutes (1865), by Jules Verne.
In the 20th century, some groups in the United States and elsewhere made serious attempts to analyze whether such a cannon could work. These efforts failed, and Newton’s elocubrations were dismissed as a mistaken prediction.
But it is worth remembering that our current means of space transport – the rocket – was once considered improbable and fanciful as well.
In 1920, the American newspaper The New York Times ridiculed supporters of the idea, suggesting that they lacked a high school student’s physics knowledge. (In 1969, the newspaper published a relaxed portrayal, the day after the Apollo 11 astronauts took off towards the moon.)
Over the years, similar theoretical leaps in imagination in relation to space have led some people to question whether orbital elevators could be built.
By suspending a very strong cable from a counterweight, it is physically possible to build a solar powered elevator into space. When launching a spacecraft to the end of the cable, it could be propelled to other celestial bodies with a minimum of fuel.
The elevators to the Moon or Mars seem even more practical thanks to the lesser gravity found there.
And giving even more wings to our astronomical ambitions, some speculate whether future humans could terraform Mars to make it habitable, or even build a “Dyson sphere” to capture solar energy around the Sun.
In the long run, we may want to make changes to make the Sun last longer, move the Earth into a wider orbit, or even transfer stars between galaxies. These projections are all far-fetched today, but mathematics and physics do not rule them out.
Redesigning the Earth
Back on Earth, the dreams of mega-scale engineering have also inspired several projects of a utopian nature that involve altering the oceans and the atmosphere.
In the 1920s, Herman Sörgel’s Atlantropa project dreamed of building a hydroelectric dam in the Strait of Gibraltar, between Spain and Morocco. The surface level of the Mediterranean Sea would be reduced by 200m, opening up new land for settlement.
An extra dam in the Strait of Dardanelles to contain the Black Sea would complement the first dam; then there would be a dyke between Sicily and Tunisia to further reduce the Mediterranean Sea; deploying locks in the Suez Canal and, as a precaution, redirecting the Congo River to replenish the basin around Lake Chad and irrigate the Sahara.
Today, ecological concerns would probably rule out the entire enterprise, even if it had political support, but if there had been money and willingness, it might as well have been tested.
A modern descendant of this type of project, conceived more as an alert than a serious proposal (still, meticulously analyzed), is the construction of a North Sea dam between Scotland, Norway, France and the United Kingdom to solve the problem of rising sea levels.
And between 1957-1977, the United States conducted the Plowshare Project to develop techniques for large-scale nuclear explosives for the purposes of peaceful construction (a similar program, called Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy, existed in the then Soviet Union).
Among the program’s ideas was the use of nuclear explosions to widen the Panama Canal, dig artificial ports or create shortcuts in mountain ranges, as well as stimulate underground gas or oil reservoirs. It is not surprising that interest in slightly radioactive infrastructure has never caught on.
However, a mega-scale alteration of the planet that is seriously considered and studied today is geoengineering.
Geoengineering involves deliberate interventions in the climate system to reduce the impact of sunlight (whether from lightening clouds with seawater, adding aerosols to the stratosphere or casting shadow on Earth from space) or to remove carbon dioxide ( using crushed olivine, sowing algae blooms or pumping it underground).
It seems possible and may even become necessary, but controlling the entry of solar radiation is definitely a risky idea.
For arrogance, amusement or for humanity?
What is the motivation for this type of thinking? It is not just that it is fun to play God.
In many cases, it is the “more is better” logic: if it is good to get agricultural land, why not try to get as much as possible? If energy is important, how much could we theoretically capture using the technology we know?
These projects tell us important things about where the limits might be and how much we can earn if we really want to.
The goal is not to predict “how” or “when”, it is usually more about mapping the extent to which the laws of the Universe prevent us from taking them forward. It can help us to distinguish the impossible from the merely improbable.
Many mega-scale engineering projects are also, in the eyes of their creators, strongly utopian visions. Sörgel believed that Atlantropa would provide energy, arable land and a better climate, but it would also help to unite Europe and Africa.
Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov proposed climate control as a first step in his cosmist program to peacefully unify humanity (later, space and immortality). The goal is to work together towards a great goal. It is not so much about extolling the world, but about extolling humanity.
It is easy to find grace and consider these dreams an impractical utopia or an arrogance of engineering. But the Earth is surrounded by a machine that transmits petabytes of data every second, stores exabytes and that you are probably using now (the internet).
There is a machine bigger than a football field moving faster than a rifle bullet orbiting overhead (a space station). And another machine in Europe is 27 km in circumference and converts energy into exotic matter (the Large Hadron Collider). Imagine what Archimedes or Newton would have thought about this.
In fact, we live in the midst of mega-scale structures that we barely notice. Part of the large-scale engineering of our environment is almost invisible.
The Netherlands, like the English regions of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, are lands recovered from the sea. The Amazon rainforest is not as primitive as previously thought: it has been cultivated for millennia. The terraces of Southeast Asia and modern metropolitan cities are the result of an agricultural engineering technique (terracing) that transforms the landscape. Sometimes, with a big plan, often not.
When and why does it work?
Previous experience with large projects often reveals a mix of budget gaps, poor planning and project management problems. But if we are so bad at it, how do some materialize?