Scientists Try to Create Eighth Wonder of the World


By Patricia Reaney

BODELVA, England (Reuters) - In a tiny corner of England on a peninsula jutting out into the sea, scientists are trying to create the Eighth Wonder of the World.

They are building a garden in a huge quarry crater containing three of the world's climate zones under gigantic geodesic domes -- the highest and largest free-standing scaffolding structure on the planet.

When the Eden Project is complete next spring, it will house more than 80,000 plants in a cathedral-sized tropical rain forest, in lush Mediterranean groves with olive and citrus trees and in the native climate of Cornwall in England.

The size of 35 football fields, it will be the world's biggest greenhouse -- large enough to hold the leaning Tower of Pisa under its domed ceiling. Adam and Eve will be missing but a hissing serpent will remind visitors of the consequences of global warming.

``We have something unique,'' said Sir Ghillean Prance, a former director of Britain's Royal Botanical Gardens and an adviser to the Eden Project.

Tony Kendle, a restoration ecologist at Reading University who has also worked on the project, describes it as a showcase for conservation and biodiversity. ``It is what conservation philosophy will be about in the next century,'' he said.

Hidden In Quarry

On country roads on England's southernmost tip, the geodesic structures -- bigger than the Millennium Dome in London -- are hidden from view in the deep former clay quarry, protected from the coastal winds. The massive domes, due to be completed by September, seem to sprout up mysteriously from the harsh landscape as visitors approach the building site.

Despite its unfinished state, the Eden Project, a charity and educational institute, has already attracted up to 4,000 visitors a day. Organizers hope to lure 75,000 visitors a year when the 80 million pound ($120 million) project is completed next year, giving a big boost to Cornwall, which has been designated one of the poorest areas in the European Union.

``It's a unique after-use of a quarry,'' construction facilities manager Neal Barnes said of the unusual problems the site and structure posed. ``It is designed to take maximum advantage of the sun.''

Before even beginning to build the domes, construction crews shifted 1.8 million tons of earth and designed a drainage and recycling system to handle the 20,000 bathfuls of water a day that come onto the site.

The structure spans 360 feet at its widest point with no internal supports. The builders chose a material called ETFE (ethyl tetra fluoro ethylene) to cover each hexagonal panel because it is lighter than glass and not degraded by sunlight.

``It is extremely strong, very lightweight and more transparent than glass, antistatic and self-cleaning,'' said Barnes. ``It is also expected to last at least 25 years.''

Three layers of ETFE are welded together at the edges to form huge pillows that are inflated more than six feet deep. Each pillow is strong enough to hold the weight of an entire football team and bigger than a taxicab.

Brainchild Of Scientists

As inspiring as the structures are, the real focus of the Eden Project is the tens of thousands of plants they will contain. The project's mission is to promote an understanding of the importance of plants and their relationship to humans.

It was the brainchild of scientists Philip McMillan Browse, Peter Thoday and Tim Smit, who were working on the restoration of the lost gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. ``This project is driven by individuals -- by the people who dreamed up the idea,'' McMillan Browse said.

They hatched the idea over countless pints of beer in country pubs. It was originally designed to attract more tourists to the rural area, economically blighted by the loss of local industry and increasingly dependent on vacationers who flock to its unspoiled beaches and countryside.

``We decided we had to do something pretty big and thought 'Why don't we build the biggest greenhouse in the world?''' said McMillan Browse, bubbling with the enthusiasm that sparked the project. ``It is a botanical garden for the 21st century.''

Against the odds and without a formal board or bureaucratic committees, the original triumvirate and a dedicated team secured a grant from Britain's Millennium Commission in October 1998 and were on their way.

In contrast to the Millennium Dome -- the much-criticized London attraction that has had difficulty enticing tourists -- Eden's team has been taken aback by the stream of visitors to the building site.

The Eden Project will close temporarily in September to allow the scientists to begin transferring the plants they have been growing for the past two years in a nearby nursery in preparation for the opening next spring.

When the tropics, warm temperate and temperate domes -- plus a visitor center, restaurant, outdoor amphitheater, classrooms and a host of educational ploys incorporating science with theater, art and music -- are complete, the Eden team hope visitors will be inspired by what they find.

``We will be a powerful magnet in bringing people to Cornwall and to Britain,'' Thoday said.

Tuesday, June 20, 2000




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