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12-mile-high tower hits a snag

Posting in Environment

Darn that jet stream. Try to build a steel tower 12 miles high, and this is what you could get.

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Science fiction author turned innovator Neal Stephenson thinks big. A couple years ago, he put forth a vision for a 12-mile high tower. Why do we need such a thing? Among other reasons, it would make it a lot cheaper to launch stuff into space, he believes.

You could even build it using standard steel rather than exotic, costly super-dee-duper extra strength material, he's been telling anyone who will listen, such as the MIT Technology Review, New York Times and others.

Well whadya know, it turns out it's not so easy after all. It seems it gets pretty windy up there in the jet stream, Stephenson revealed in an interview with the BBC. You don't say!

Stephenson noted:

"In a windless environment making a structure that tall would almost be trivial. But when you build something that is going to poke up through and get hit by the jet stream from time to time, then it becomes shockingly much more difficult."

So whoever gets the contract will have to first line up a supply of who knows what, graphene nanotubes or something.

Snideness aside, you have to admire the guy's vision. Stephenson's idea came about after the president of Arizona State University challenged him and the science fiction community to inspire great accomplishments, the way Arthur C. Clarke and Jules Verne used to do.

The timing was perfect, as Stephenson, known for dark sci-fi novels and a dystopian view of the future, was changing his ways and veering toward optimism.

The next thing you know Stephenson helped ASU form the Center for Science and Imagination which opened a year ago and, where, for now, it's back to the drawing board for the towering tower.

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Photo of toppled communications tower on Mt. Eva in Colorado is from Xnatedawgx via Wikimedia. It was not 12-miles high.

Some inspirational words from Stephenson:

— By on September 17, 2013, 8:24 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure