Editorial: Going underground

Underground is more than just a physical place. It can suggest mystery, adventure, horror and death, or riches and treasure (real gold and black gold). It can mean ancient history, romance, or whole other worlds both real and imagined.

Writers have imagined everything underground, from cannibalistic peoples in HG Wells' 'Time Machine' to prehistoric monsters in Jules Verne's 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth'.

To explorers there are still uncharted territories underground. 'Underground London' author Stephen Smith points out that more people have stood on the Moon than in some of the caves of Yorkshire. As he tells us in our interview on p94, his new book, 'Underground England' covers underground engineering from Victorian coal wagons to the Millennium Seed Bank.

Secret underground tunnels, bunkers and even towns offer a world of intrigue for enthusiasts of 'secret history'. Mick Herron delves into the fascinating story of London's Kingsway Tunnels, which are now up for sale, on p90.

If you want to see the world in a different way, look at what's underground. Vital pipes carry oil and gas across borders and even between continents. On p20, Imperial College's Professor Rafel Kandiyoti draws a new map of the world and explains the politics of pipelines.

For a century or more most of the world's energy needs have been met from the oil and gas underground. But there's another potential energy source down there. Unlike some other renewables, geothermal power works day and night and in all weathers. It's tantalisingly close. Six kilometres down the temperature rises to above 100°C. Oil wells are already drilled to several times that depth. So near yet so far? Sean Davies investigates on p48.

Extracting conventional fossil fuels leaves big holes. Could underground spaces like these help to solve some of the problems of overground alternative energy sources like solar and wind power? Sian Crampsie examines whether the little-known technology of compressed air energy storage can help to smooth out the ups and downs of wind power. The little known technology has been in use for a couple of decades already.

Think underground communications and you might turn first to copper cables or fibre optics. On p70 David Sandham looks at the future of 'dark fibre' - all those cables that were installed in the ground before the dotcom bubble burst in the early 2000s and are still unlit. However, Christine Evans-Pughe discovers a really extraordinary way to communicate data using mud - that's not an acronym, just mud - and how it's helping oil and gas engineers reach new deposits.

To city dwellers the underground is a quick way to get around. Until the Dubai metro opens in a year or two, the world's first and longest subway is the Lille Metro. Rebecca Pool experienced it for herself and explains what makes it so smooth and efficient on p25.

The London Underground (opened 1863) is the oldest rapid transport system and quickly grew into one of the most complex. The instantly familiar map is descended from a classic and ingenious design by Harry Beck, an engineering draughtsman for London Underground, first published in 1933.

Beck based his design on an electrical schematic because he figured that travellers underground weren't bothered about their absolute geographic position. Could that work for magazines too? This issue's one-off contents is a tribute to Beck. Note there's a line for each sector subject and some features are on more than one line... Ingenious!

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