WILLIAM F. WU



This essay is available for download for personal use as long as the copyright notice is preserved in full.
Tim Kirk illustration
Illustration by Tim Kirk, colored by Tonija Allman.
Used with permission.

Essay

This essay appeared in the Antelope Valley Press of Palmdale, California, in The New Millennium special magazine, January 1, 2000.

Subterranean generation: Why not underground cities?

By WILLIAM F. WU
Special to the Valley Press
Copyright 1999 by William F. Wu

Imagine a vision of Antelope Valley in the year 2099: Bright sunlight, blowing sand, the vapor trail of rockets into space . . . and not a city in sight, despite thousands of comfortable residents. Where is everybody?

We are going to be here, aren't we?

Yes, this vision includes roads, parks, sports facilities, onion and alfalfa fields, horse ranches, air strips, spaceports and ski resorts in the mountains. But where does everyone live?

Why are those giant, shiny rectangles with communications antennae and dishes scattered at distant intervals on the flat Valley floor among the green crop fields?

Can anyone really predict the future?

Predicting the future has always been a reckless endeavor. Futurists are most often correct if they make numerous predictions, as though firing a shotgun at a target: Later, they can point to the holes in the bull's eye and ignore the shots in the outer rings of the target or off the target completely.

Any detailed speculation is not so much about the future as about one possible future out of many possibilities.

Even so, a futurist must address certain issues for a prediction to have any chance at accuracy. For instance, if particular changes might take place in a certain locale, what traits in that site will cause them?

Economic assets and liabilities drive the nature of human life in any region, influenced by the technology available.

In the past, improving technology turned difficult mountain and desert routes into streams of traffic; unprofitable ore strikes into working mines; and empty skies into corridors for travel, defense and communication. In the high desert, resources include sunlight, wind, sand and wide open spaces.

Liabilities might be considered the extremes of sunlight, wind, sand ... and wide open spaces. And earthquakes.

How has geography affected Valley life in the past?

Nineteenth-century technology effectively exploited mining and ranching interests where food and water could be found or transported, but the limitations of technology also confined both the economic possibilities and the quality of life for residents in the Valley.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Valley's resources have been utilized to greater effect by better mining technology and newly created fields such as the film industry and aerospace. Improved roads, increased water supplies and amenities such as air-conditioners have improved the quality of life.

In the next century, Antelope Valley residents will also harness new technology to take advantage of the same high desert resources and to minimize the liabilities.

Yeah? ... How?

Everything that can be invented has been invented.
--Charles H. Duell, U.S. commissioner of patents, 1899

Imagine cities underground

In the spirit of speculation, suppose Antelope Valley residents will live primarily in cities underground.

"Huh?" you say. "Underground? Why would anyone do that?"

Imagine a huge shopping mall and then add apartment buildings, supermarkets, city parks, amusement parks, schools . . . everything a city requires. Now design it in a single, large, sealed container, with multiple levels. In effect, imagine a space station and put it deep into the desert.

For years, science fiction novels, films and TV shows have presented space stations humming with human life, self-contained with everything humans require to live. The public has grown familiar with them through film and TV. The same sort of habitat can be built underground.

OK ... but why would people want to live in what amounts to a city in a bottle?

Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.
--Marshal Ferdinand Foch, French military strategist, 1911.

Perhaps many Valley residents in the future will choose to live sheltered from the outdoor climate, yet also wish to enjoy the outdoors for recreation and travel. Would exceptions exist? Of course -- some people will still choose to live on ranches, in the bluffs, on mountains or near lakes. For others in the community, certain advantages might pertain to living in an underground city:

Insulation. A self-contained habitat deep underground would be surrounded by sand, neither overheated by the sunlight nor chilled by winter. The cost of maintaining steady temperatures would be less.

Recycling of energy. A well-insulated community can trap the heat generated by machinery and human life and direct it to where it can be of use.

Security. Strangers would not be able to enter unnoticed. A proper balance of law enforcement and legal freedoms regarding entry and exit could lead to a safer community than traditional cities and towns.

The land surface could be used specifically for activities that require it, instead of being covered by urban sprawl. Farmland, ranchland, recreation and transportation -- including space launches and landings -- would optimize use of the Valley and surrounding mountains.

A properly designed underground habitat could minimize earthquake damage.

Suppose the city-in-a-bottle concept resembled a city in a thermos bottle -- with one shell on the outside, against the sand in which it is buried, and an inner shell with a thick gel between the two.

When earthquakes occurred, the "thermos bottle" containing the city would generally be held steady in the sand -- and if the sand shifted, the city itself would be free to float slightly in the sand, since it does not lie on a foundation. Inside the hard shell, the gel would allow the inner shell also to float, cushioning the city and its inhabitants inside from many effects of the movement. Giant floats attached to the inner shell, suspended in the gel, would keep the inner shell level.

Connections to the surface for communication, water, air, power, waste disposal and entry and exit could be flexible -- perhaps like giant versions of a dryer vent hose -- so they would not snap.

In fact, many Australian homes in the desert Outback are underground, proving the feasibility of this concept on an individual scale. In the United States, major underground government facilities have existed for years, creating a wealth of data about such matters. Of course, the government facilities do not have to be economically self-sustaining, but at some point, this information may enter civilian use just as the government's aerospace and naval research has done over time.

Radio has no future.
-- Lord Kelvin, Scottish mathematician and physicist, 1897.

What are the objections?

In the spirit of Socratic debate, let's raise objections to this concept.

Q: I don't like the sound of this. I refuse to live this way. Who's going to make me?

A: No one. In this bit of speculation, we're still in a free country. Right now, when people want to shop in traditional stores on the streets of town instead of in a mall, they can. In the future, when people want to live in traditional cities, towns and rural areas, they will. These cities underground will only succeed if some people choose to enjoy them.

Q: These sound very expensive to build. Why would building companies construct them?

A: Large apartment buildings, shopping centers and malls have always been expensive to build. If people want to live in them, builders will eventually find ways to make them desirable -- and affordable.

Q: The insulation sounds good, but where will the community's energy come from?

A: Power grids can be connected to these cities, just as they service our existing cities. However, more energy might be supplied by using desert resources. Solar power captured by those shiny metal rectangles would be a start, maybe supported by windmill farms of the kind already in existence. These could make underground cities self-supporting or close to it, meaning they would only need to be connected to a larger power grid for backup.

Q: Security is a reasonable issue, but what about our basic freedoms?

A: Legal rights would not be given up. Residents of underground cities would have all their legal rights, just as current residents of apartment buildings that have security features retain theirs.

Q: Even if this concept of a floating bottle helps cushion the effects of most earthquakes, what happens in "the big one"? I don't want to be trapped underground if the power goes out and the bottle breaks.

A: The answer lies in setting the bottle horizontally. Design the underground city to be no more than three stories deep and then, in a power outage, the population can climb out in the same manner that the residents of some old buildings can hurry down a fire escape. Self-contained emergency power supplies might still run elevators, escalators or ramps with inclined conveyor belts for the disabled and infirm. In only three stories -- each of them spread wide just beneath the surface of the ground -- the population would in fact be closer to external safety than the residents of tall buildings are now.

Q: Only three stories? That sounds like a very small town to me, not a city. How many people will live in these places?

A: Each one can be a different size, just as apartment buildings and malls vary now. Some would resemble very large apartment buildings of our own time, which house more people than many small towns. Others would be small and cozy.

Q: How will water and food reach a city of this sort?

A: The same way they would reach a city on the surface: Water by aqueduct and perhaps snow melt captured from the San Gabriel Mountains; food by rail and truck.

Q: Even supposing the underground cities work, how would people make a living?

A: This is a crucial question, so let's examine the big picture. The area could still be a hotbed of aerospace experimentation and industry, including test flights and commercial launches. In fact, as commercial space businesses grow, the Antelope Valley might very well become the major Earth port that serves Southern California. As with traditional seaports and air hubs, a spaceport will naturally bring burgeoning service industries to support both the core industry and retail amenities for the population. Of course, any number of industries flourish in major ports; factories can also be set underground, built similarly to the cities. The surface of the land would be retained for agriculture, recreation and those industries that by definition must be outside, such as landing aircraft or launching a rocket into space -- though perhaps rockets, like missiles, theoretically could be launched from underground silos.

In fact, let's end the Socratic dialogue here and look at another field of futuristic technology that could influence this scenario, and possibly every other area of life.

Computers in the future may ... perhaps only weigh 1.5 tons.
-- Popular Mechanics, 1949.

Tiny tools to mine desert?

Nanotechnology is a new, cutting-edge field that postulates the creation of tiny machines made up of only a few atoms, tools that would generate their own tiny amounts of electricity and work at atomic and molecular levels.

Right now, the industrial possibilities of this field remain theoretical, but what if this is possible? How might people in Antelope Valley benefit from tiny tools?

One speculation about nanotechnology postulates that these tools could be given simple programming, nothing complex, given their size and simple design. For instance, what if a machine the size of a molecule could be ordered to locate gold atoms? Or any other specific element or mineral found in the high desert sand? Then suppose another nanotech machine was programmed to take hold of the desired atoms and bring them to the surface.

Traditional mining has focused on concentrations of ore. Given the nature of past and present mining technology, this maximizes efficiency. As the price of a certain ore goes up or down in the marketplace, mines will operate or shut down, depending on whether the income justifies the cost. At the same time, experts know that many valuable ores exist in the Mojave Desert sand in amounts that are just too small to be worth processing with existing technology. Could nanotech machines help mine them?

Nanotech mining would have major up-front costs, as new technologies always do. However, if nanotech machines could in fact burrow into the sand, repetitively and tirelessly, to locate and bring to the surface atoms and molecules of marketable elements and minerals, then the rarity of those ores might not matter -- the constant activity of independently programmed and powered machines in huge numbers would eventually make the process cost-effective. If so, virtually any portion of the high desert sand might become a source of new wealth.

This, too, could become a major high desert industry in the century to come. Those in charge of it might very well live in underground cities and supervise underground processing plants as they earn their living.

Humans, not technology, make ultimate decisions.

In closing this speculation about future life in Antelope Valley, where perhaps the sand will one day protect underground cities and offer up new wealth, where the sunlight and wind may offer more energy and where the natural environment may remain a base for recreation, aerospace and a spaceport, a final caution is also due:

Technology alone never drives the direction of changing life. The 20th century has also seen major social change in areas such as civil rights, gender issues and the role of government in individuals' lives, among many others. Ultimately, people will choose to live the way they wish -- as they should -- and, as the inaccurate predictions accompanying this speculation prove, even the experts can't always predict their own fields.

640k ought to be enough memory for anybody.
--Bill Gates, chairman, Microsoft Corp., 1981.

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Last Modified: December 31, 2002
Modified by: LJL


Copyright William F. Wu 1999, 2000-8. All Rights Reserved.