The Biggest Building In The Universe

Forget the mine's-bigger-than-yours debate over the new World Trade Center. Humanity's ultimate design will be building around the sun.

The amount of energy that the sun emits every second is nearly unfathomable. In just one second, the sun releases 4 decillion (or 4 million billion billion billion) ergs worth of energy, enough to power our civilization for the next half-a-million years. Not too shabby for a little nuclear furnace of incandescent gas that, from a cosmic perspective, is so small as to barely be worth noticing at all.

The problem with our sun, though, is that it's extraordinarily wasteful. Our star may very well release enough energy to blow up a trillion megaton warheads every second, but most of that beams out into the vacuum of space. In fact, the energy that hits Earth is only an infinitesimal fraction of what the sun actually produces at any given moment. Most of that energy is simply lost.

It's no wonder, then, that sci-fi authors have spent years contemplating ways in which advanced civilizations can harness more energy from the sun. And as seen in this YouTube video by Simon Terrey, the solution to humanity's energy problems is almost inconceivably vast.

The megastructure seen in the video above is called a Niven's ring, and it's named after Larry Niven, a science fiction author who wrote a novel in 1970 called Ringworld. In his book, humanity discovers an alien solar system surrounded by an artificial ring with a circumference of over 600 million miles. On the inside of this ring are vast continents and oceans, equivalent in area to around 300 million Earths, and which therefore are capable of leeching up to 300 million times more of the sun's energy than Earth can at any given moment. Gravity on the ringworld is mimicked by centrifugal force as the ring rotates slowly around its parent star.

Although Niven's novel quickly captured the sci-fi zeitgeist, such solar-system-spanning megastructures were not new to him. Niven's vision owes much to Freeman Dyson, a famous American physicist and mathematician who posited that as civilizations expand, their demands for energy increase exponentially. If a civilization goes on for long enough, it stands to reason that it may need to capture the total energy output of a star. Harnessing this much of the sun's power would be especially important if a civilization had mastered interstellar travel because of the presumed energy requirements of near light-speed travel. The Dyson Sphere is what the solar system of a civilization whose energy needs were total would look like: a big black shell that encompassed a burning star like an egg, leeching up every erg of the energy it produced.

Dyson Spheres and Ringworlds may seem like esoteric subjects, but they have been popularized thanks to games like Bungie's Halo series, which takes place on a series of large, ring-shaped megastructures. But while such constructs may seem best left to the realms of sci-fi and video games, scientists and astronomers take the idea seriously. If an advanced alien civilization has built a Dyson Sphere around its home star, it wouldn't emit visible light, but would increase the amount of infrared light in the star system's spectrum... which is precisely why both SETI and Fermilab are constantly on the lookout for infrared hotspots in the infinite vastness of space.

Obviously, humanity isn't about to build a ringworld anytime soon, let alone a Dyson Sphere. Such constructs will remain theoretical. But if we last long enough, this is the ultimate design that all of our Teslas and iPhones are building towards: a man-made object created by a civilization that has swallowed up the solar system that bore it. It is the end destination of design. Pretty breathtaking, isn't it?

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  • Singe

    The rings in Halo are actually a lot smaller than ringworlds. They don't encompass their star. They orbit around it conventionally like a planet would, and are just big enough that the the spin period is roughly 24 hours and provides roughly 1g of fake gravity. They're tilted slightly off the ecliptic so half is bathed in night and half in day. This was inspired by the Orbitals in the late, great Iain M. Banks' novels of Culture. :) Still, quite large compared to a paltry little Earth-sized world.

  • Jenevieve DeFer

    Actually Dyson did NOT create the Impermeable shell around a sun. He suggested a set of solar satellites some for power generation and others for habitation. That was his Dyson Sphere, The shell around the sun that Niven talks about in Ringworld is a misunderstanding of Dyson's idea. Actually a Dyson shell would take many many solar system's worth of materials to create and may not be possible at all unless we can come up with some supermaterials to build one with. Same for the Ringworld. Also a Dyson Shell is orbitally unstable and would probably crash into any Sun it was around.

    IMHO we would be much better off building Dyson's original Sphere. It would be far easier to incrementally build and expand.