Thinking Big

For the past seventy years, our greatest inventions and innovations have been realized by thinking ever smaller.  No, that’s not meant as a criticism, merely a witticism.  Back in the 1950s, Richard Feinman gave a lecture at CalTech entitled, “There’s Always Room at the Bottom”.  In it he extolled the virtues and opportunities of minaturization, of making things ever smaller, presaging Moore’s Law of exponential increase in transistor number in microelectronic integrated circuits.  He also talked about making miniture machines, challeging his listeners (and readers of his lecture series, of which I have the full set in our library) to build a motor only one sixtyforth of an inch.  He was far too modest in his challenge.  We long ago acheived motors measured not in fractions of an inch, but in nanometers.

While I don’t want to state anything so silly as to prognosticate the end of Moore’s Law (too many have done so and been wrong) I do lament that we as a world culture have seemingly abandoned the big.  For decades, our buildings and bridges have seemingly inched their way to larger sizes, but once upon a time, in the 19th and early 20th, we thought big and built big.  Collectively, we dared build projects so big that they staggered the imagination.  Sullivan built new skycrapers.  The Victorians built the Crystal Palace.  Paris built the Eiffle Tower.  All of these stretched and challenged both the imagination and the engineering skills of our best and brightest.

But as I described in my previous essay on the lamentable slowdown of development in the late 20th Century, it seemed to me that we abandoned the ‘big’ challenges.  Oh, we still build “big”.  But they aren’t amazingly big and audatious, not like the first Panama Canal was audatious.  With the possile exception of the Chunnel, the tunnel under the English Channel, we just don’t seem to think BIG anymore.  Consider, where are the domed cities we dreamed of in the mid-20th Century, the cities floating in the sky, the underwater cities?

So, purely as an excercize in creativity, lets think BIG for a brief moment, throwing out ideas, both good and bad:

Ever watch the awsome power of a thunderstorm?  Ever think about how much energy is being released?  Could we not capture and use some of that energy?  Consider building a several tens of thousands of feet high chimney that is a thousand feet wide.  When conditions in the atmosphere approach those conducive to generating thunderstorms, when the lifting index is high, a contained and sustained mini-thunderstorm will develop inside of it.  The air will rise inside of the chimney driving huge wind turbines.  Sized and positioned right, the mini-thunderstorm will be self-sustaining over long periods of time.  There are places in the world where this might be an excellent means of providing renewable energy.  The American South, especially Florida, would seem to fit the bill; imagine dozens of them along the Florida penisula.

Ever watch the tides move in and out of a bay?  In some places the amount of water and its speed could easily be harnessed to provide huge amounts of renewable energy.  Already, small scale tidal power projects have been or soon will be built.  But we should think BIG.  Consider the Sea of Cortez.  There are amazing tides there.  More interestingly, there are several islands mid-way that nearly block the northern and southern portions from each other.  The water moving here could be easily harnessed.  Imagine huge underwater turbines between these islands, providing power for the growing cities of Mexico.  There are other places in the world where these underwater turbines may be placed.

For decades, I’ve day dreamed of how to build floating cities above our already crowded city real estate, places that would probably welcome a bit of shade to reduce the thermal island effect.  Imagine huge blimp like bags of hydrogen lifting lace like lattice structures dotted with lightweight housing.  Anchoring guywires and cables carrying power, water, and sewage would tie them in place.  Gondolas would provide transporation to and from the floating city.  Imagine living in an apartment thousands of feet above the city, with panaramic views that stretched for miles.  The walls and furniture would be lightweight polymer foam to keep the lifting requirements minimized. Oh, and before you complain that hydrogen is dangerously flammable, you might want to read up on how HARD the British Royal Aircorp found it to ignite the hydrogen in German dirigables during WWI.  And about the Hindenburg disaster… that almost certainly was sabotage.  But in the case where no one trusts hydrogen as a lifting gas, we can always punt and use low pressure heated air.  It would cost more in terms of energy to maintain, but would be completely safe from fire.

So, its your turn.  Think BIG !!

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