Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Let’s talk crazy, and then let’s draw the line.

We, as a race, have created some insane things in our time on this planet. The Grand Coulee dam, the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge, the tunnel under the English Channel, the twinkie—all fantastic achievements, and all built because we, as a people, decided they needed to be done.

Now, I would like to touch on something that, if built, would be none of those things.

Engineers are a zainy lot. If your city needs a bridge built, as around: some engineer has probably been designing one just for fun. The Mackinac Bridge was actually designed by a team of engineers who just wanted to see if they could do it, years before the call was sent out for ideas. And no one should fault them for it; in every carrier we like creative challenges. I like coming up with story ideas and working out plot problems for other people, its natural.

And while bridging the straits of Mackinac maybe wasn’t ever going to be important, it was a challenge some designers felt they could beat. So, that being understood, there are a lot of people out there looking for answers.

But some of them are trying to answer questions that no one, ever, will ask.

The entire planet(the important bits, anyway) are basically divided into two super-continents: Europe/Asia/Africa, and the Americas(north and south). They are separated by some oceans, but the major economic centers of each are located respectively on the East coast of North America and the western regions of Europe. Separated by the Atlantic Ocean. You know, the one that covers a good one-fifth of the planet? Yes, that Atlantic Ocean.

Now the Atlantic has been crossed for some time by ships, and now more recently by aircraft, so getting “over the pond” as it were has not been a serious issue for some time. Ocean liners, zeppelins, and now giant airplanes. We even flew super-sonic passenger airliners back and fourth for a while, there.

And yet, some crazy, crazy engineers, have for many years been working on a way to tunnel under the Atlantic. This raises several questions, mostly some variation of “why” with various capitolizations, combinations of question marks and exclamation points, and the odd curse before or after.

Why is a very good question, but lets stop and address how, just for grins. And “how” is pure, unadulterated crazy. The plan is not to actually dig a tunnel through the rock(as such a tunnel would have to be miles underground—and not just a few, either) but actually to build a giant metal pipe suspended 500 feet beneath the waves. Specially built trains would then travel through this. But that’s not the crazy bit, oh no. The pipe, which, remember is not far above the crush-depth for nuclear submarines, is going to have all the air pumped out until it is a vacuum, and mag-lev trains will be flung through it at 7,000 miles per hour.

Seven thousand.

I spelled it out up there, in case you thought the comma and extra zero were an accident. So a seven-thousand-mile-per-hour train, running through a steel tube five hundred feet under water, crossing four thousand miles of ocean. Total travel time is about 45 minutes, which is not too shabby considering some of us drive for longer than that to get to work. Of course, 45 minutes doesn’t account for getting to the mag-lev station, going through security(and you better believe it’ll make current TSA measures look laissez-faire), and of course customs because you are traveling between freaking continents. So no, you are not going to be able to live in New York and commute to your job in London, that’s just stupid. The tunnel, as mentioned would have all the air sucked out to reduce friction and allow those insane speeds(at which even a minor crash would kill everyone onboard). The designers say it would take 3 months just to create the vacuum—which means every time they have to fix it, they have to pressurize it again.

As to why is was designed in the first place, well, that’s easy. Its an exciting engineering challenge. You have a problem, you want a solution, as an engineer, your job is just to ask “can it be done?” and then make the answer “yes”. So its very easy to understand why people have worked on this project, its got a lot of fun engineering challenges involved.

But the non-engineering problems become clear when we refer back to an old joke. A engineering major, a physics major, a business major, and a liberal arts major are all at the drive through of a fast-food restaurant, examining the daily “toy surprise”. The engineering major asks “how does it work?”, the physics major asks “why does it work?”, the business major asks “how much does it cost?”, and the liberal arts major politely enquires as to whether or not they want frys with that. Now, assuming the “toy surprise” is our tunnel, let’s address the business major’s question. And the answer is several times the GDP of the entire planet.

All to build a tunnel only a handful of people could use.

Let’s keep something in mind here: there are people seriously suggesting we do this. Not just some engineers working with a design because it amuses them: proponents are actually, seriously, with a straight face, saying that this is a good idea.

The designs may be technically feasible. The trains might be made safe enough to become something other than a suicide sled. The technology—while not their, yet—is certainly not complete science-fiction.

However, the economics, are completely ridiculous.

Let’s start with the target demographic, the consumer. This is not a train tunnel an ordinary train that people are already riding on can go through; this is a specially-designed bullet train. Meaning that anyone wishing to use it must first travel to the station. Now, if you’re on your way to London from, say, Kentucky, its going to be less work to just take an airplane directly from one to the other. Or perhaps to go through an airport hub, but either way, changing modes of transportation halfway through—since the train station ain’t gonna be near an airport—is not going to be worth shaving a few hours off your trip.

So that means it will really only be useful to people living with a few hundred miles of the station on either side. That’s easy: the American end was supposed to be in New York, and the Europe end in London, so you’ve got a few million potential customers on either side. However, how many of those people frequently have to travel between the two cities? Airliners loose money when they aren’t full, but air travel has been around long enough that it also makes a fair amount of money. One half-empty train on this thing could be devastating.

And now let’s talk cost, holy crap. The people designing this thing estimate it may take fifty years to complete, but at two or three times the GDP of the freaking planet, its going to take centuries to pay for. And that’s assuming nothing inside of it ever breaks or needs to be maintained.

So even IF thousands of people a day absolutely HAD to be in London or New York within the hour, and ALL of those people could afford the $5,000-$10,000 pricetag of a ticket, it probably still wouldn’t start to make money within the lifetime of anyone who was born while it was still under construction.

Well, closing in on three pages, let’s finally get to why this relates to writing. This is the sort of stupid, ridiculous idea that WILL NEVER HAPPEN. Even the guys in Star Trek, with no money and freaking matter-replicators wouldn’t build it. By the time technology reaches the point where such a tunnel would be economically viable, we will undoubtedly have developed instantaneous matter-transport, or some other sufficiently cool technology as to warrant such an undertaking ridiculous.

So as you design your fictional worlds, stop and consider: is this thing my story has a tunnel under the Atlantic? Is it so zainy and economically infeasible that no civilization in their right mind would ever bother to build it?

Now, someone(I’m not sure who since nobody reads this site) is probably trying to draw an analogy to the Great pyramids, insisting that they weren’t “economically feasible”. Well, first off, they obviously were; they were mostly all built during the Old Kingdom and over the course of several centuries. And, also, they were made from freaking rocks that you dig out of the ground, not the combined output of every single steel mill on the planet for several decades. Seeing as Sneffru alone built three freaking pyramids, it just doesn’t compare.

In closing, just remember: fiction has to be reasonable. Not realistic, but reasonable.

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