GO­ING UN­DER­GROUND

Geographical - - THE WORLD BE­LOW -

Chris Fitch ex­plores some of the world’s most mys­te­ri­ous spa­ces in this ex­tract from his lat­est book

In 1691, a young geo­physi­cist with shoul­der-length hair made a pre­sen­ta­tion to the Royal So­ci­ety of London that was, even by the stan­dards of 17th-cen­tury break­throughs, fairly as­tound­ing. The sci­en­tific com­mu­nity had been flum­moxed by the un­pre­dictabil­ity of Earth’s mag­netic field, by the way the planet’s poles con­sis­tently shift over time. To Ed­mond Hal­ley – he of the fa­mous comet – the so­lu­tion to this co­nun­drum was sim­ple: in­side the planet must be a se­ries of con­cen­tric in­ner worlds, each sep­a­rated by grav­ity. The ground on which we stand is there­fore sim­ply the 500-mile-thick outer­most layer and it’s the move­ment of these in­ter­nal worlds that keeps throw­ing off the mag­netic read­ings. Fur­ther­more, he pre­dicted that these worlds are in­hab­ited by life forms and lit by an un­known sub­ter­ranean light that also ex­plains the ex­is­tence of the aurora bo­re­alis, the North­ern Lights.

Hal­ley wasn’t sim­ply pluck­ing these the­o­ries from thin air. In­stead, he leant heav­ily on mil­len­nia of spec­u­la­tion about what lay be­neath our feet. From an­cient mythol­ogy through re­li­gious no­tions of a pun­ish­ing af­ter­life, hu­man­ity has re­peat­edly the­o­rised about fan­tas­ti­cal un­der­worlds, of­ten as a coun­ter­weight to the glo­ri­ous heav­ens above. But the cre­den­tials of a great man of sci­ence such as Hal­ley gave the the­ory of un­der­ground worlds real em­pir­i­cal weight. Hal­ley was so com­mit­ted to this the­ory that in his fi­nal por­trait – in 1736, aged 80 – he’s shown clutch­ing a parch­ment that clearly de­picts a di­a­gram of these in­ner lay­ers.

Sadly for Hal­ley, the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity had lit­tle time for what has since be­come known as the ‘hol­low Earth’ hy­poth­e­sis. Sub­se­quent ex­per­i­men­ta­tion es­tab­lished there to be sig­nif­i­cant den­sity to the planet’s in­te­rior, as il­lus­trated by mea­sure­ments of seis­mic waves pass­ing through the up­per and lower man­tles that are now widely ac­cepted to ex­ist be­neath the con­ti­nen­tal crust upon which we walk. A se­ries of lay­ers, yes, but ones com­prised of liq­uid magma and a solid-iron in­ner core, in­stead of pre­his­toric an­i­mals in­hab­it­ing their own mini-worlds.

And yet. No hu­man has ever set eyes upon the core, or seen be­yond the mer­est glimpse of a man­tle. The deep­est hole in the world – the Kola Su­perdeep Bore­hole in Rus­sia – has pen­e­trated only 12 kilo­me­tres into the ground, a frac­tion of the roughly 6,350-kilo­me­tre ra­dius of the Earth. So it’s hardly sur­pris­ing that vivid imag­i­na­tions have con­tin­ued to dream up their own re­al­i­ties, spawn­ing end­less the­o­ries and tall tales about deep and mys­te­ri­ous sub­ter­ranean worlds. Many a fic­tion writer has found their imag­i­na­tion stirred cre­atively by the prospect of new worlds be­low our own.

With a sur­face world that has been ex­plored, sur­veyed, mea­sured, mapped, pho­tographed and In­sta­grammed to the point of steril­ity, per­haps the sub­ter­ranean realm is where Earth’s re­main­ing mys­ter­ies – nat­u­ral and an­thro­pogenic – are yet to be found. It’s cer­tainly worth ac­knowl­edg­ing the lim­i­ta­tions of the hor­i­zon­tal plane in which most of our lives take place. We do in fact live in a world of (at least) three di­men­sions and while our in­stinct is of­ten to look up, some­times the best sto­ries can be found by look­ing down. If you were to peel back the Earth’s sur­face like the skin of an orange and then take a sly peek un­der­neath, what re­mark­able things would you see?

The an­cient Mayan civil­i­sa­tion lasted for at least 3,000 years. The Mayans built more than 40 large-scale cities across Me­soamer­ica – en­com­pass­ing much of mod­ern Mex­ico, Gu­atemala and Belize – and had a peak pop­u­la­tion of about two mil­lion peo­ple.

They used so­phis­ti­cated agri­cul­tural meth­ods such as ir­ri­ga­tion, invented ad­vanced ar­chi­tec­tural tech­niques and suc­cess­fully man­u­fac­tured re­sources such as choco­late, rub­ber and pa­per. Yet much of their en­vi­ron­ment was arid and harsh. The sur­vival of Mayan so­ci­ety, rel­a­tively de­vel­oped as it may have been, hinged on a vast un­der­ground world of wa­ter, ac­ces­si­ble through thou­sands of gap­ing holes in the ground.

These cenotes, as they are called, can still be seen to­day, pri­mar­ily on the Yu­catán penin­sula of south­east Mex­ico. Two such holes are lo­cated next to per­haps Mex­ico’s most fa­mous an­cient Mayan land­mark, the UNESCO World Her­itage site of Chichén Itzá. The name it­self tells a rich story about the cenotes, bring­ing to­gether chi (mean­ing ‘mouth’), chen (‘wells’) and Itzá, the name of the spe­cific tribe that set­tled there. ‘Wells’ gives a clear in­di­ca­tion of why cenotes were so vi­tal to the peo­ple liv­ing here, as these nat­u­ral wells were their sole source of drink­ing wa­ter. With­out cenotes, Mayan civil­i­sa­tion would likely have ground to a halt be­fore ever get­ting started.

But these holes in the ground, pits across a pock­marked sur­face, also had a more sin­is­ter use. Tra­di­tion­ally, they were where the Maya made sac­ri­fices to the god of rain, Chac (also some­times spelt Chaac or Chaahk) – of­ten de­picted in stat­ues with large fangs and some­times a snout. Pre­cious of­fer­ings would be thrown into the cenotes in the hope he would re­spond by bring­ing the vi­tal sea­sonal rains nec­es­sary to make crops grow. These gifts in­cluded ev­ery­thing from jade and gold to in­cense

These gifts in­cluded ev­ery­thing from jade and gold to in­cense and even, dis­turbingly, small chil­dren

and even, dis­turbingly, small chil­dren. It’s from these of­fer­ings that the ‘mouth’ part of the name arises.

We now know that cenotes are es­sen­tially a spe­cific, iso­lated form of sink­hole, formed when the lime­stone sur­face level col­lapsed, ex­pos­ing a vast cav­ity un­der­neath. How­ever, a deeper the­ory ex­plain­ing their cre­ation takes us back to the end of the age of di­nosaurs. In north­ern Yu­catán, the town of Chicx­u­lub sits right where an es­ti­mated 15-kilo­me­tre-wide as­ter­oid smashed into the planet 66 mil­lion years ago, caus­ing a su­per-tsunami that swept the globe. Up to 80 per cent of life on Earth was wiped out. Once the clouds of sul­phate aerosols had even­tu­ally cleared, a huge crater was re­vealed, up to 180 kilo­me­tres in di­am­e­ter. Half of it is buried off­shore un­der 600 me­tres of sed­i­ment, but the other half, now on land, was later cov­ered by a layer of lime­stone. It’s that layer that has been eaten away over time, cre­at­ing the cenotes we know to­day.

More re­cent dis­cov­er­ies in the cenotes have been of the mod­ern va­ri­ety, prin­ci­pally rub­bish and hu­man waste. Yu­catán’s Sec­re­tar­iat of Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment has es­ti­mated that 60 per cent of the state’s 2,241 reg­is­tered cenotes have prob­lems with pol­lu­tion. In re­cent years, teams of lo­cal divers have been or­gan­ised to leap into se­lec­tively cho­sen cenotes and re­trieve hun­dreds of tonnes of waste, in­clud­ing car tyres, glass bot­tles and old bi­cy­cles.

The land­scape of Cap­pado­cia in cen­tral Turkey has a be­wil­der­ing qual­ity, where the di­vid­ing line be­tween nat­u­ral and hu­man cre­ation blurs into ob­scu­rity.

Here in Cen­tral Ana­to­lia, north of the Tau­rus Moun­tains, lies seem­ingly alien scenery. Cre­ated through mil­lions of years of vol­canic erup­tions coat­ing an old lake with layer upon layer of ash, the land even­tu­ally cooled into a soft, por­ous rock hun­dreds of feet deep known as tuff, it­self cov­ered by lava that cooled into a hard top­ping of basalt. So-called fairy chim­neys, pil­lars of tuff left be­hind when the land around them eroded away to the point of col­lapse, now pro­trude from the land­scape like nails jut­ting hap­haz­ardly from an old piece of wood. Some are 40 me­tres tall; each has its own lit­tle mush­room-style basalt hat on top.

Such uniquely re­mark­able ge­ol­ogy is part of why Cap­pado­cia is now part of Göreme Na­tional Park, a UNESCO World Her­itage site since 1985. But that’s just the sur­face view. Be­low ground, things get far more bizarre. Cap­pado­cia con­tains an as­tound­ing 250 sub­ter­ranean towns and cities, carved by hu­man hands from the soft tuff ter­rain that the vol­ca­noes left be­hind. The largest of these cities is Derinkuyu, sup­pos­edly not dis­cov­ered un­til 1965, when one above-ground res­i­dent knocked down a wall in his home and found an en­trance to an im­mense maze be­low (Derinkuyu lit­er­ally trans­lates as ‘deep well’). Once ex­ca­vated, Derinkuyu was re­vealed to com­prise dense tun­nels like ant farms that stretched as deep as 85 me­tres be­low the sur­face – around the height of Big Ben or the Statue of Lib­erty – and con­tained more than 18 lev­els. These in­cluded vast stor­age spa­ces, schools, churches and even fully equipped un­der­ground winer­ies and brew­eries fed by wa­ter from deep sub­ter­ranean rivers run­ning be­low. Liv­ing in a re­gion of the world prone to waves of at­tack from for­eign in­vaders pass­ing be­tween Europe and the Mid­dle East (and vice versa), like a small boat caught in rough wa­ters, the ar­rival of un­de­sired foes was a reg­u­lar con­cern for the res­i­dents of Cap­pado­cia. The founders of Derinkuyu and neigh­bour­ing cities may have be­longed to the Hit­tite Em­pire, pre­mod­ern peo­ple who dom­i­nated the re­gion be­tween 3,000 and 4,000 years ago. It’s be­lieved they dug out the first, some­what rus­tic up­per lev­els as crude de­fences against as­pir­ing in­vaders such as the Phry­gians. In time, the Hit­tites faded from his­tory, leav­ing Cap­pado­cia to be an­nexed by the Assyr­i­ans, the Per­sians and so on, each civil­i­sa­tion dig­ging deeper than the last. The Byzan­tines took con­trol of the re­gion in around the sixth cen­tury and vastly ex­panded Derinkuyu’s tun­nels, dig­ging ever deeper and cre­at­ing the smooth, more pro­fes­sion­ally rec­tan­gu­lar lower lev­els. The Byzan­tines well and truly dug in their heels to en­sure their con­tin­ued pres­ence in the face of cen­turies of Arab in­va­sion, de­vis­ing a se­ries of me­dieval tricks, traps and bar­ri­cades to dis­suade po­ten­tial in­ter­lop­ers.

In 2013, con­struc­tion work­ers car­ry­ing out de­mo­li­tions in the nearby re­gion of Nevşe­hir dis­cov­ered un­known tun­nels lead­ing deep un­der­ground, where a new sub­ter­ranean city was un­cov­ered. The mys­ter­ies of Cap­pado­cia con­tinue to re­veal their se­crets.

More than 100 years ago, on a scorch­ing-hot sum­mer day, a 14-yearold boy was walk­ing through the red dust of a seem­ingly des­o­late Aus­tralian desert when he spot­ted a sparkling rock among the de­tri­tus of the ter­rain. Wil­lie Hutchi­son and his father had trav­elled to the spot by camel while on the hunt for gold – which this rock cer­tainly wasn’t. But its iri­des­cence caught Wil­lie’s at­ten­tion, nev­er­the­less. It was an as­tute ob­ser­va­tion. The young Hutchi­son had stum­bled across an opal, an­other valu­able min­eral that would ut­terly trans­form this re­mote cor­ner of cen­tral South Aus­tralia.

As word of Wil­lie’s dis­cov­ery spread, as­pir­ing min­ers rushed to the lo­ca­tion, an 850-kilo­me­tre jour­ney in­land from the coastal state cap­i­tal, Ade­laide.

Within five years, the in­flux had re­sulted in the found­ing of a func­tion­ing set­tle­ment named Coober Pedy (a cor­rup­tion of the lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal phrase kupa piti – ‘white man’s hole’). The eco­nomic down­turn of the 1930s came close to killing off the en­deav­our, but a fresh dis­cov­ery of gems in the mid1940s reignited opal fever.

By the ’60s, Coober Pedy had been recog­nised as an of­fi­cial town and con­se­quently ob­tained both a lo­cal gov­ern­ment coun­cil and a mem­o­rable rep­u­ta­tion: the ‘opal cap­i­tal of the world’. As much as 70 per cent of the world’s to­tal opal pro­duc­tion is mined from the earth here (up to 85 per cent if you in­clude the pro­duce from var­i­ous smaller neigh­bour­ing towns). For this, res­i­dents can thank the oceanic wa­ters that flooded this land 150 mil­lion years ago. When the sea even­tu­ally re­ceded, it left be­hind residues of hy­drated sil­ica hid­den in small cracks and fis­sures in the earth that, over time, hard­ened into the valu­able stones present to­day.

There’s just one prob­lem with at­tempt­ing to build a life in the town of Coober Pedy: the ex­treme tem­per­a­tures that rav­age the re­gion in sum­mer, caus­ing the mer­cury to surge above

40°C for up to three or four months at a time, even some­times creep­ing to­wards 50°C. At such ex­tremes, heat ex­haus­tion and even heat stroke are not un­likely out­comes. The res­i­dents of Coober Pedy came up with an ingenious so­lu­tion: they headed un­der­ground. Not just when min­ing, but for al­most the whole of their lives. Many of the orig­i­nal opal prospec­tors were Aus­tralian veter­ans of trench-style con­flict in France and Turkey dur­ing the First World War, so they were ex­pe­ri­enced in con­struct­ing un­der­ground bunkers. Thou­sands of peo­ple be­came sub­ter­ranean, con­struct­ing homes, churches and other ne­ces­si­ties in domed caves in­side the sand­stone rock – of­ten in­clud­ing fake win­dows to give the il­lu­sion of be­ing above ground. An en­tire town was con­structed, vis­i­ble from the sur­face as lit­tle more than a scat­ter­ing of holes that re­sem­ble gi­ant anthills.

The con­tem­po­rary bur­rows of

Coober Pedy, presently home to up to 3,000 peo­ple, now in­clude a num­ber of un­der­ground ho­tels, apart­ments, B&Bs and even un­der­ground camp­sites. Mu­se­ums, a casino, a pub and a gift shop com­plete the tourist ex­pe­ri­ence. While the mod­ern lux­ury of air con­di­tion­ing has en­abled peo­ple to with­stand the worst of the sum­mer heat­waves more con­ven­tion­ally, al­low­ing the con­struc­tion of sev­eral above-ground struc­tures (as well as the obli­ga­tory grass­less golf course), at least half the pop­u­la­tion – many of whom con­tinue the vo­ca­tion passed down by their fore­bears, tak­ing to the mines in search of ghostly rain­bow opals – main­tain a tra­di­tional bunker life­style, liv­ing up to 15 me­tres be­low the sur­face. Nev­er­the­less, life in such a pre­car­i­ous part of the world is never easy. Con­cerns have been raised in re­cent years about the prospect of oil and gas min­ing in the Ar­ckaringa Basin (to the east of the town) which could con­tam­i­nate the Great Arte­sian Basin, a vast aquifer, and thereby po­ten­tially threaten

Coober Pedy’s wa­ter sup­ply. Hu­man­ity’s de­sire to strip the Earth of its nat­u­ral re­sources may have been re­spon­si­ble for Coober Pedy’s birth, but it may also be re­spon­si­ble for its demise.

In 1958, Typhoon Kanogawa smashed its way through down­town Tokyo,

Ja­pan. Wind speeds ap­proach­ing

125 mph un­leashed heavy rain that trig­gered hun­dreds of land­slides and flooded half a mil­lion homes. More than 200 peo­ple lost their lives in the city, with more than 1,200 peo­ple per­ish­ing across the en­tire coun­try.

But this wasn’t a one-off in­ci­dent. In­stead, it was just one chap­ter in a bru­tal cen­tury of flood­ing for Tokyo, start­ing with the heavy rains that in­un­dated the city in 1910, leav­ing nearly 200,000 homes flooded and hun­dreds of peo­ple miss­ing. In 1917, it hap­pened again – high tides tak­ing the lives of more than 1,000 peo­ple – fol­lowed by a suc­ces­sion of pow­er­ful and de­struc­tive ty­phoons that swept through dur­ing the late 1940s. Var­i­ous pro­tec­tive mea­sures such as tide bar­ri­ers and wa­ter gates were in­stalled af­ter the dev­as­tat­ing events of 1958, yet the lat­ter half of the cen­tury saw the city con­tinue to be tor­mented by sea­sonal down­pours that had nowhere to flow ex­cept into the streets and peo­ple’s homes, in­clud­ing one ma­jor typhoon in 1966 and an­other in 1979, when Ja­pan was bat­tered by Typhoon Tip, pos­si­bly the strong­est storm ever recorded.

By the end of the 1980s, a decade in which Tokyo had again been sub­jected to a se­ries of al­most an­nual flood­ing events – in part due to an ever-grow­ing pop­u­la­tion liv­ing in an ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment that was spread­ing out­wards, paving over the sur­round­ing marsh­lands and rice paddy fields – Ja­panese au­thor­i­ties de­cided to take sig­nif­i­cant ac­tion. A plan was hatched, fully com­mis­sioned in 1992, to be­gin con­struc­tion of what was dubbed the ‘world’s largest drain’ – a long-term in­fras­truc­ture project that would be ca­pa­ble of man­ag­ing any fu­ture flood­ing events that threat­ened the safety and pros­per­ity of the city’s tens of mil­lions of res­i­dents.

When it was fi­nally com­pleted, in the late 2000s, the fi­nal prod­uct – the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Area Outer Un­der­ground Dis­charge Chan­nel, fondly nick­named the ‘G-Cans’ project – was some­thing truly colos­sal. Buried be­neath the city streets lies the world’s largest flood­wa­ter­di­ver­sion fa­cil­ity, a pres­surised sys­tem ca­pa­ble of redi­rect­ing ex­cess wa­ter with ease. The cav­ernous in­te­rior of the main wa­ter tank, 22 me­tres be­low ground, is in­tim­i­dat­ingly vast. Fifty­nine pil­lars, which ap­pear even larger than their 18-me­tre height, sep­a­rate the floor from the ceil­ing, leav­ing any­one walk­ing around the base re­sem­bling ants milling around the hull of an empty ship. At 177 me­tres long and 78 me­tres across, the fa­cil­ity stretches al­most out of sight. With ma­jes­tic in­fras­truc­ture on such an enor­mous scale, it’s no won­der the fa­cil­ity has been com­pared to a coli­seum, or even a cathe­dral.

Five huge cis­terns – each big enough to ac­com­mo­date a space shut­tle – have the pumping power nec­es­sary to re­move an Olympic swim­ming pool of wa­ter from the stor­age fa­cil­ity in a mat­ter of sec­onds. Fir­ing the wa­ter through a tun­nel net­work that’s more than six kilo­me­tres in length, they ul­ti­mately dump the un­wanted flood­wa­ter into the large Edo River, which then car­ries it to the ocean.

At present, such a process is re­quired to take place an av­er­age of seven times per year. But the fu­ture is some­what more uncer­tain. As the city grows, the rains in­crease and the seas rise, many peo­ple in Tokyo are vo­cally wor­ry­ing about whether their un­der­ground pumping sys­tem is large enough to cope with the im­pact of a more un­pre­dictable cli­mate. The liveli­hoods of mil­lions and the lives of thou­sands, are at stake. Au­thor­i­ties are now be­ing forced to con­front the un­com­fort­able pos­si­bil­ity that even this enor­mous fa­cil­ity might not be suf­fi­cient to con­tend with fu­ture flood­ing events. Tokyo’s 21st cen­tury might yet be as tu­mul­tuous as its last.

‘End of the world!’ shouted tabloid head­lines. It was Septem­ber 2008 and jour­nal­ists had just un­cov­ered a decade­long plot by sci­en­tists in Switzer­land to build a su­per-pow­er­ful ma­chine ca­pa­ble of un­der­tak­ing what was quickly dubbed the ‘Big Bang ex­per­i­ment’. This ex­per­i­ment, they ex­plained, would in­volve ac­cel­er­at­ing sub­atomic par­ti­cles to close to the speed of light and then smash­ing them into each other in the hope of sim­u­lat­ing the con­di­tions that were present im­me­di­ately af­ter the cre­ation of the uni­verse.

In the worst-case sce­nario, these prophets of doom as­sured their read­ers, we would wit­ness the for­ma­tion of small black holes that would quickly ex­pand to con­sume the Earth and ev­ery­one on it. Le­gal ac­tion was even taken to try to pre­vent the ma­chine be­ing switched on, so great was the hys­te­ria. The re­al­ity was some­what less apoc­a­lyp­tic, al­though just as news­wor­thy. What had ac­tu­ally hap­pened was that the Euro­pean Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Nu­clear Re­search, the Geneva-based Euro­pean atomic physics lab­o­ra­tory more com­monly known as CERN, had spent years up­grad­ing its Large Elec­tron-Positron Col­lider (LEP). The LEP, a gi­gan­tic ma­chine com­mis­sioned back in May 1981, was con­structed for the pur­pose of in­ten­tion­ally col­lid­ing elec­trons with their an­ti­mat­ter coun­ter­parts, positrons, to fur­ther the study of bosons – sub­atomic par­ti­cles that carry the forces that de­ter­mine how atoms in­ter­act with each other. This re­quired the con­struc­tion of a 27-kilo­me­tre cir­cu­lar tun­nel be­low Geneva. It took three tun­nel-bor­ing ma­chines three years to ex­ca­vate the area, mak­ing it Europe’s largest civil en­gi­neer­ing project at the time. The tun­nel was fi­nally com­pleted in Fe­bru­ary 1988; the LEP be­came ac­tive the fol­low­ing sum­mer.

The new, am­bi­tious up­grade – in­stalling the world’s largest and most pow­er­ful par­ti­cle ac­cel­er­a­tor within the ex­ist­ing in­fras­truc­ture of the LEP’s tun­nel – be­gan as far back as 1984. It promised a leap for­ward in re­search, but con­cerns were raised about whether such a ma­chine was re­ally nec­es­sary, es­pe­cially given the USA’s in­ter­est in build­ing its own Su­per­con­duct­ing

Su­per Col­lider in an 87-kilo­me­tre tun­nel – longer than the en­tire Panama Canal – in Wax­a­hachie, Texas. De­spite ob­jec­tions, pro­pos­als for the Euro­pean project were pushed ahead, a de­ci­sion that was jus­ti­fied in 1993 when the US gov­ern­ment voted to can­cel its project due to ris­ing costs just two years af­ter con­struc­tion had be­gun.

A year later, the Large Hadron Col­lider (LHC) was of­fi­cially ap­proved for con­struc­tion. The goal: to cre­ate a ma­chine ca­pa­ble of smash­ing to­gether high-en­ergy beams of pro­tons trav­el­ling at close to the speed of light in or­der to un­lock some of the mys­ter­ies about the na­ture of quarks and other par­ti­cles emit­ted dur­ing the mini ‘fire­ball’ that mo­men­tar­ily ig­nites in the af­ter­math of col­li­sions at such im­mense speeds. When the LHC power switch was fi­nally flicked on, things didn’t go en­tirely to plan. The world didn’t end, but the ini­tial ex­per­i­ments cer­tainly did, when a fault caused cool­ing fluid to leak into the tun­nel. Thirty-seven mag­nets needed to be re­placed be­fore the LHC was even­tu­ally up and run­ning prop­erly. But the sci­en­tists’ per­se­ver­ance was re­warded a few years later, when the fa­bled Higgs bo­son was suc­cess­fully iden­ti­fied in

July 2012. The ex­is­tence of the so-called ‘God par­ti­cle’ had first been pre­dicted by Bri­tish physicist Peter Higgs nearly half a cen­tury ear­lier and the year af­ter its dis­cov­ery, he and Fran­cois En­glert of Bel­gium, who had also pre­dicted its ex­is­tence, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.

The LHC’s tun­nel sits 100 me­tres be­neath the French–Swiss bor­der, with the mun­dane car parks and of­fice blocks vis­i­ble on the out­skirts of Geneva giv­ing lit­tle clue to the bizarre ex­per­i­men­ta­tion tak­ing place be­low ground. Yet even this con­trap­tion is some­thing of a min­now com­pared to plans re­leased by CERN for a new par­ti­cle ac­cel­er­a­tor. If con­structed, the ‘Fu­ture Cir­cu­lar Col­lider’ will be six times as pow­er­ful as the LHC and housed in a new tun­nel 100 kilo­me­tres or more long. The sub­ter­ranean world be­neath Geneva may just be be­gin­ning its sci­en­tific adventure.

It took three tun­nel-bor­ing ma­chines three years to ex­ca­vate the area

Chris Fitch is a jour­nal­ist, ge­og­ra­pher and for­mer staff writer at

Ge­o­graph­i­cal.

His lat­est book,

Subter­ranea,

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Suy­tun, one of the many cenotes on the Yu­catán penin­sula

Cap­pado­cia is home to nu­mer­ous ‘fairy chim­neys’, the prod­uct of mil­lions of years of vol­canic erup­tions and ero­sion

The mighty flood­wa­ter dis­charge fa­cil­i­ties be­neath Tokyo have been com­pared to a cathe­dral

The tun­nel con­tain­ing the Large Hadron Col­lider is as de­void of at­mos­phere as the moon and cooled to al­most ab­so­lute zero

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