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Paul Preuss

“Ingenious… a complex tale of political and scientific intrigue.”

Library Journal

“A fascinating scientific-technical spectacle.”

Kirkus Reviews

COREcover

 
 
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Core posits the sudden collapse of Earth’s magnetic field and subsequent communications
blackouts, critical power disruptions, radiation burns and the threat of deaths by the tens of thousands. Physicist Marta McDougal and geologist Leiden Hudder lead an international project to reset the field by first drilling a hole to the outer liquid core.

Read a chapter.

Geologist Leiden Hudder’s father invented hudderite, a material capable of enormous strength and heat resistance, but when he disappeared, his patents remained with Leidy. Physicist Marta McDougal is the first person to use hudderite for potentially practical devices. The two meet, and what begins as an argument ends as a collaboration.

Nothing was left of Marta’s half of the pizza but a smear of sauce on the paper plate. “He never published the story?”

“He never even told my mother, until he was in the middle of his fight with Northeastern.” Leidy pushed at the pizza slices he’d hardly touched.

“He wanted to keep the government out of his hair?”

“Yeah. Back then, if you worked for the national labs, you were supposed to sell them the rights to any bright idea you had for a dollar.”

She fiddled with the neck of her beer bottle. “You talk about money a lot.”

“I do?” He seemed surprised. “Maybe because I earn my way. No big corporation, no university, no government agency takes care of me.”

“You’re not missing out on much.”

“You worry about money too.”

“Sure I do.” She thumped the beer bottle on the table. “Since the father of my children decided he didn’t want to work for the big oil companies, he gets paid what the government pays scientists in the U.K., which is shit. And he’s not always timely with the child support.” She sighed, exasperated with herself. “Which is none of your concern.”

“Never mind.”

“It’s not the same for you. Money, commodities, patents, what’s up and what’s down—it’s like your hobby. Do you get any joy out of it?”

“I’ll have to think about that.” He picked up the uneaten pizza. “I’ll get them to bag this. Maybe I’ll get hungry later.”

 

After lunch they went to Marta’s laboratory. The giant Brookhaven accelerator center takes up many acres of what was once Long Island farmland, but inside the gate they had to search among the crowded buildings for a parking space.

She ushered him into the tiny office in the corner of the lab and cleared papers off a chair for him. She sat behind her desk and leaned back in her chair. Her expression was bright; her rosy skin glowed, and her chest rose and fell under the soft cotton of her purple pullover. “What do we need to talk about?”

“When I was in Morocco, I saw a lot of sick people in the mountains. A child—he died later. From the change in the mag­netic field, and then the solar flare.”

“I’m sorry, Leidy. It was a bad time to be in the mountains.”

“I wonder if it will ever be a good time to be in the mountains. The field’s been failing for a long time—just statistically it’s heading toward zero in a thousand years. From what we saw last week, it could happen tomorrow. The net dipole configuration—the north and south magnetic poles, I mean—were moving over three de­grees a day, for three days at least. At that rate the field could fall to zero in a month. The poles would be sitting on the equator.”

“Mm,” She opened her desk drawer and groped for her cigarettes.

“If we are unprepared, a lot of people will die. Not just in the short run, and not just in the mountains; over the long term much of the upper atmosphere could be ionized. The ozone layer would be completely stripped away. We would be sitting ducks for ultra­violet radiation. First we become night creatures. Worms. Then the planet starts to die around us.”

She lit her cigarette with a purple Bic and said nothing, waiting for him.

“The magnetic field is generated in the liquid core. It changes because of changes in the flow patterns down there. What if we could find out what’s really going on in the core? At the very least we might have an early-warning system.”

“We can’t even predict earthquakes,” she said, and blew a stream of smoke.

“Because those are messy problems. Plates sliding around, hanging up, colliding, diving under one another. The core could be simple. A bowl of molten iron.”

“So you know better.” Her curved lips could have been smiling.

“I know something about the earth. And you know plenty about hudderite. One reason my father was excited about hudderite was because he thought it could help him realize his dream. He had the notion that it could be used not just to face drill bits, like diamond chips, but as a material for downhole tools and instru­ments. Even for borehole casing.”

Marta said, “That’s why I’ve been concentrating on scale-up. Well, not to drill holes, but because all kinds of applications will follow. All of which is a long way off.”

“Maybe your methods don’t work perfectly yet. Neither do anybody’s.”

“You want to drill a hole to the core? I don’t even know how far down that is.”

“The top of the outer core, about twenty-nine hundred kilo­meters.”

“What’s the deepest hole ever drilled?”

“The Russians, in the Kola Peninsula. They’re down about twelve kilometers.”

She threw back her head and said, “Hah!”

“We do face a number of problems.” He didn’t crack a smile. “Principally heat and pressure.”

There was a big white board mounted on her wall that people could draw on with colored ink markers. Leidy stood at it and wiped away everything that was on it, then swept out concentric arcs of red and orange, labeling them “crust,” “mantle,” “outer core,” “inner core.”

He said, “At the CMB, the core-mantle boundary, within a region only two or three hundred kilometers in depth, the tem­perature rises from three thousand degrees C in the mantle to forty-five hundred degrees in the core. That’s approaching the temperature at the surface of the sun. At atmospheric pressure that would be hot enough to melt tungsten. The pressure at the core-mantle boundary is a million times greater—that is not an exag­geration—and tungsten doesn’t melt under pressure like that. Under pressure like that, lots of things can be harder than diamond. Xenon, an inert gas up here, would be a metal down there—harder than diamond. Geophysicists spend a lot of time contemplating pressure-temperature curves, equations of state.”

“Tungsten we can fabricate,” she said.

“One of the advantages of hudderite as a material is that it is metastable, so that we can work with it at the surface, and also that it will not melt or burn or deform under these temperatures and pressures, whether they are applied separately or together. You know this from Dad’s articles.”

“You want to make a tube of hudderite three thousand kilo­meters long,” she said.

“Essentially that’s right,” he said. He drew the tube, a single black line from the curve of the earth’s surface to the tighter curve of the top of the outer core. He drew well; drawn freehand, the line was almost straight. “If this tube were a single, perfect crystal we would have no problem. That’s probably too much to expect.”

“Assuming you want to do it sometime within the next couple of centuries,” she said.

“Also there will have to be some internal features. For example, the liquid iron in the core may want to come up the hole. We will have to fill the whole tube with a medium—essentially drilling mud, but more like molten lava. It may have to be pressurized. We may need locks in the tube.”

“Umm,” she said. “Forgetting the tube a minute, what are you going to use as a drill?”

“Well, probably it will be a downhole turbine of some kind.”

“What’s a downhole turbine?”

“If you can’t turn a bit with a drill string you use a turbine. The Russians found that even using magnesium-alloy drill pipe they could not rotate a drill string longer than ten kilometers. In a turbine the bit is turned by the drilling mud passing through it. They mount instruments on these turbines, gyroscopes and such. These send data to the surface. They steer them through the ground like subterranean rocket ships on a wire.”

“You are going to send molten lava eighteen hundred miles down a pipe through a turbine,” she said.

He thought about that. “Maybe not.”

“What we need is a mole, something that burrows by itself,” she said. “We supply power and direction from the surface.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“And this mole excretes a tube of virtually perfect hudderite crystal behind it as it goes.”

“Something like that.”

“Well, that should be pretty simple,” she said cheerily. “So we drill this hole to the core. Then what?”

“We inject instrument packages into the liquid iron core.”

“How do these instruments communicate with us?”

“The same way we communicate with the drill. Fiber optics, continuously extruded from the surface.”

“You know, I can see that,” she said. “That’s the first thing I can actually picture in my mind. ”

“Because the technology already exists,” he said. “When you put your mind to it, when you think up the techniques, you’ll be able to see all the rest too.”

She curled her lip at him. Flatterer. “What kind of instruments that we build on the surface can withstand forty-five hundred de­grees C?”

“That’s a good question,” he said. “Gallium arsenide?” he asked hopefully.

She was dubious.

“We may have to cool the instrument packages, then,” he said. “We get our power from the geotherm—we can get our refriger­ation from the geotherm as well.”

“The geotherm?”

“What we’ve been talking about, the increase in temperature with depth. Once we get to a certain depth, we will have the world’s mightiest power plant. Temperatures far higher than any nuclear reactor. Send water down, it comes up as superheated steam. Send down any medium you want to use, it comes up as vapor. The geotherm. That’s the way we’ll cool the instru­ments.”

“You mean these things float in liquid iron, they dangle a heat exchanger maybe a few kilometers long below them …”

“Trail a radiator above them,” he interjected.

“. . . so basically these are tethered balloons,” she said. “The problem is—put it another way—how do you sink a Ping-Pong ball in a crucible of molten steel?”

“We’ll get a thermodynamicist to work on it,” he said.

“Gee, in that case it should be simple,” she said, giving him a funny wide-eyed, innocent look.

“We can test our models at a scrap steel mill, in a carbon arc furnace.”

“I’d rather go to Hawaii,” she said, unblinking. “Float them in an active volcano.”

“How about Iceland instead?”

“In a pinch.”

 

They worked through the afternoon. She didn’t take him seriously for more than half a minute at a time, but that didn’t matter. Good science doesn’t arise from unremitting seriousness; if it did, sci­entists might as well sell medical insurance. Every once in a while she caught herself believing in his mad scheme.

I can do that, she thought, I can do that. Then she came back down to earth. Back up to the surface of the earth.

“Where do we start this hole? Where do we pile the rock that comes out of it?”

“What’s the long dimension of your beam machine?”

“What’s that have to do with it?”

“As a benchmark. It’s what, maybe a meter long?”

“Less than that.”

“Say a meter. We lower it into a hole, we’ve got to have a hole one meter in diameter and three thousand kilometers deep. That’s easy. That’s the volume of a cylinder, pi r‑squared times h, pi times one times three million, about nine and a half million cubic meters. That’s the volume of a cube a little over two kilometers on a side, just a big hill or a little mountain.”

“But I just remembered, we’re putting the same volume back into the hole. As, you know, what you call drilling mud.”

“Yeah, right, of course,” he said. “I didn’t think of that. Maybe we could mine it, mix it, melt it, then pour it back down. Less debris than a mine dump.”

“Still a lot of mess. ”

“Do it where they are used to the mess.”

“We could do it in the ocean.”

“Good God, no.”

His terror was almost comic.

“Is that fear or respect?”

“The ocean makes no sense.”

She pressed him. “Didn’t I hear the crust was thinner in the ocean? Weren’t they going to drill the Mohole from a ship?”

“The Mohorovicic discontinuity is of passing interest to us. Our problem is to drill through the mantle. Mantle rock has the ductility of stretched piano wire. Crust is wet sand by comparison. Sand­stone, limestone are nothing. Granite is easy. We don’t have to go near the water.”

“Relax, Leidy. Forget the water.”

“And we stay away from the plate margins, the volcanoes, the quake zones. We look at a map. The middle of Asia, the middle of Africa, the middle of North America. Alberta, say. West Texas would be nice. Somewhere where they have roads and railroads. Where the local folk support drilling.” Leidy was a bulldog with his teeth in a grand scheme. “I like West Texas. Fly from San Antonio to El Paso and the ground below you looks like somebody doodled on it and filled up the paper, all those access roads leading to drill sites, pump sites. Those limestone hills bristle with pumps and rigs. They know the stratigraphy as well as any place on earth, at least the first five or six miles down.”

“Would I like West Texas?”

“We would have to find a way to keep you busy,” he said.

 

He kept waving his arms until the day ended. Then he followed Marta home. The children came back from the sitter and were not pleased to find Leidy in their kitchen, although he had brought home cartons of Chinese food and plastic liter bottles of Coke. He endured the girls. They endured him. After dinner, he produced three videocassettes he had also picked up on the way, a couple of adventures featuring rats and mice, plus Watership Down. Some­what to his surprise the little rats chose the bunnies, grabbed the cassette from his hand, and ran upstairs to shove it in the VCR. No thank-yous, but for the next hour and a half they kept quiet.

In the kitchen, Leidy and Marta talked some more, but found themselves with less to say. Not that the problem was any less intrinsically interesting, but one cannot produce ideas endlessly without some data to base them upon. Bedtime for Linda and Luisa came as welcome relief.

She came back downstairs. “Where are you sleeping?”

“I’ll find a motel, a place in town,” he said.

“It’s after ten o’clock. The living-room couch folds out. I’ll get sheets and blankets.”

“Thanks.”

It took them five minutes to make up the couch. He was asleep ten minutes after that.

 

Sometime after midnight he woke up and saw her sitting on the floor, leaning back against the hallway arch. Sodium-arc streetlight was coming through a window, outlining her body in gold through her sheer gown. She was watching him….