Imagine we're in a world where massive, outrageous amounts of energy are available at our fingertips. Perhaps one of those crazy cold fusion ideas panned out, or we eventually built ourselves a --partial-- Dyson sphere of glittering solar panels around the Sun. It matters not how.

Now, one of the characters living in this setting (let's call her Young Alice) has a summer cottage. And she thinks the view from her porch would be a lot better with some minor landscaping, such as moving (or perhaps just wiping out) a series of mountain peaks in the distance.

What sort of technology would be required to be able to literally dismantle mountains with a labor force of 0$^*$?

* well, technically $\lim_{x \to 0}x$, since she has to think it at least.

  • $\begingroup$ I imagine a giant space laser melting the mountain and covering the surrounding countryside in molten rock. But that might cause some ecological damages (if it doesn't render the Earth completely inhospitable to life). Is there a limit to the potential damages caused by this move? $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh May 21 '15 at 14:14
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    $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh Alice's mom might not be happy about having to clean large amounts of pyroclastic tephra dust from the porch, nevermind the effect of the blast shockwave on the lilies by the picket fence. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa May 21 '15 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ Required time scale? $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske May 21 '15 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ With science based, do we have stuff like anti-grav available? How about automated machines? Personally I think mountains are pretty. I'd leave it, and build another summer home with the view that I want. Maybe on a beach. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 May 21 '15 at 14:37
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    $\begingroup$ @AdamDavis, Do not take Alice for some conjurer of cheap tricks! $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa May 21 '15 at 19:05

10 Answers 10


Once endless energy is available, dismantling things is not very hard. It would be trivial to, say, subject the mountain range to the energy equivalent of the entire solar flux received by the earth. The forces of ten thousand suns would literally melt the mountains into lava.

The larger issue with such technologies is that others have the technology too. Naturally, if Young Alice is the only mad scientist on the block with a tectonic scale heat ray at her disposal, she can get rid of mountains if she pleases, and no one will complain (at least not to her face). However, assuming others have this capability, restraining use of great force is far more challenging than the uncontrolled use of it.

So let's start by restraining Young Alice's heat gun with a safety interlock. It's only allowed to slag mountains if the matter has been put to a vote, and the plans have been on display for at least 3 months (and not in the corner of some government building basement either). Then a federal officer would come by, deactivate the interlock, and for a few joyful moments, Alice would be master of her own environment.

Of course this isn't the most interesting outcome in the world. Especially since she won't be the only one with a safety interlocked heat gun, and the government faculties devoted to the tactful removal of granite and limestone would be swamped with requests.

It's also not all that interesting because, frankly, there's no reason for everyone to have the power to slag a mountain if it's locked up all the time. More likely the heat gun will have configurable power. The maximum mountain slagging power would require a full federal process, while the power needed to, say, toast s'mores would be freely available without any interlocks. Naturally you would want a range inbetween. Perhaps eradicating an oak tree blocking your view of the mountains would only require HOA approval. That way you could enjoy your view before Alice gets her mountain-slagging pass and leaves you with a view that you wish was obscured by an oak tree!

As you get to smaller scales, we find more desire to create than destroy. Your neighbors may not accept you demolishing a tree, but they may let you express your inner artist by turning it into a topiary. With the limitless energy of a sun, it would not be surprising if we had such technology.

Let's make this a bit more compact. The limitless powers we are talking about are so magical, let's just make it a magic wand and be done with it. The magic wand has a bunch of safety interlocks, but once you unlock the right level, it lets you create a particular flavor of nanobot to do your bidding.

That's better! Now let's address the voting process. Nanomachines don't do voting like we tend to. They're too small and there'd be too much information to deal with. Instead, they do something known as "quorum sensing." It's a lot like voting, but it can be done in a more localized and continuous process. Yeast use it to decide whether the environment is a "go forth and multiply" environment, or a "hold onto your butts!" environment.

So there would be nano machines at the mountain quorum sensing what should be done to the mountain. There would also be a stream of activated nanobots between Young Alice and the mountain, conveying her desires. This process can be quite intelligent. If she wants to carve the mountain into Mt. Rushmore, and the only other opinion is from someone on the other side of the mountain, it may give her the ability to carve her side. If she wants to obliterate it, she'll have trouble achieving quorum with someone on the other side opposing her.

Of course this whole process can be a bit stressful. If you were a microscopic particle trying to stand between a woman trying to slag her husband's holey boxers using a magic wand, and her husband desperately trying to resist, you'd be stressed too. So the nanomachines are going to have to have some communal ability to recommend lower stress alternatives (such as accidentally "misplacing" them the next time they need to be washed).

So the biggest opposition Young Alice faces in her mountain moving exercise is the voice of those who think mountains look nice. As her frustration builds, she starts pushing on the nanomachines to do her will rather than the others. The nanomachines at the mountain give feedback: "She's stressing us out, you upstream nanomachines need to help us out!"

Fortunately, as a general rule, if you're focusing on one thing, you're not focusing on another. If Young Alice is focused on slagging mountains, she's not focusing quite so much on the state of her lovely garden. Thus she won't mind too much if instead we slag a little bit of the ground in her garden to form a tunnel, much like the kind a rabbit might dig. After all, it's only a small hole. Nobody will mind much. We might not even mind if the nanomachines construct the shape of a White Rabbit with pink eyes to run close by her.

Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!

  • $\begingroup$ Ah, now with the mountain out of the way, the headquarters of the Federal Vaporization Authority are blocking her view and cramping her style. Guess there's an easy way to solve that. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa May 22 '15 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ I do like the idea of reality shifting to conform to the will and preset preferences of whatever god happens to be passing by. Wheresoever Alice walks, a glade of a thousand flowers doth bloom. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa May 22 '15 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ Given the setting (her cottage is in the same planet as the mountain), melting isn't really an option, that amount of energy released would wreck the climate of the planet... I'd like at least to see a calculation of energy released by melting a mountain, and comparison of that to solar energy received by the entire planet during the same timeframe. Otherwise I think dismantling anything big on a planet by just using a lot of energy is really rather hard, if you don't want to destroy the whole planet... :) $\endgroup$ – hyde May 22 '15 at 17:32
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    $\begingroup$ The idea of slagging a mountain was fun to work with, because it was very clear and I didn't need to be too descriptive while I started exploring the consequences of such weaponry. However, by the end, as nanotech got involved, the energy used in dissapating a mountain becomes less important because the nanomachines would naturally try to accomplish your goal in a lower stress manner. Perhaps turn the mountain to dust, and then stir up a tornado to lift that dust into the air and waft it to all over the world, before slagging each dust mote on principle. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon May 22 '15 at 17:53

As an aside, Young Alice is crazy to think that mountain ranges make scenery worse. I guess I could see moving them into your field of view, but out of it? Crazy talk. But I'll answer the question anyway in the hopes that she'll come to her senses.

The obvious answer would be Nanotech. Take a survey, define the areas of the mountains you want scanned and disassembled, and let it go. I'm assured by EvilCorp that the Grey Goo problem has been solved, and really, it was extremely rare anyway. Once it's over she can sell the mountain range on craigslist, and it will be the responsibility of the buyer to move the giant pile of waiting nanomachines and raw material to the mountain range's new location.

Everything else I can think of is likely to damage the lilies, but I'll see what I can do.

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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps the mountain is not close enough. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa May 21 '15 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ Yep, I was going to say nanobots too. Though I don't think I'd ever use them for such a big task, it's too likely one of them will break and start converting the entire Earth into nanobots. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh May 21 '15 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ I was going to say nanobots, but that's a lot of mass, and unless it has metals the bots aren't going to be able to use the mass to build more bots to exponentially increase their numbers... It'll take a while. Large scale automated earth moving machines would probably be as effective. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 May 21 '15 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ @AndyD273: Yeah this is definitely more the "winter season" type timescale rather than the "lazy afternoon". $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske May 21 '15 at 15:30

I live in a part of the world where we already literally dismantle mountains and pile them back up somewhere else (after separating the coal from the limestone). It's called strip mining, using huge shovels and 400 tonne haul trucks, the mountain is taken down one layer at a time and hauled off somewhere else where the soil is piled back up and reclaimed by planting trees all over it.

Strip mining obviously employs a large labour force, but to make that labour force 0, all you'd have to do is automate the process, have the drills automatically drill their blast patterns to loosen up the rock, then have the shovels come in and load the automated trucks.

Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute and Caterpillar, Inc. are apparently already attempting to make this a reality.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ah, man over nature! $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa May 21 '15 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ This answer draws attention to the main concern I'd have: not how to obliterate the mountains, but what happens to the obliterated remains? Crush them, melt them, vaporize them, whatever - where does all that stuff go? If you're not restricted to the surface of the planet then you could just chuck the stuff into space (possibly making cool Saturn-esque dust rings), otherwise you'd have to figure out how (really where) to dispose of the vast quantities of waste without pissing anyone off or ruining the rest of the scenery you're trying to improve. $\endgroup$ – talrnu May 22 '15 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ @talrnu - Landscape architecture was one of my first jobs, you have some jobs where you need to excavate a lot of dirt, and you have others where you need to bring dirt in (to build a berm or a mound). The best was when you're working one of each at the same time. You'd charge the one customer to have their dirt dug up and hauled away, at the same time you'd be charging customer 2 for the same dirt and for delivery. You'd literally haul dirt from A to B and get paid by both customers to move it. $\endgroup$ – ShemSeger May 22 '15 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ @talnu - Who's to say that someone on the other side of the world wasn't paying to have a mountain installed on their property the same time the other person was getting rid of theirs? Maybe she sold her mountain on kijiji eh? Or gave it away and the other person is arranging the transport. AD: "Free Mountain. You Haul." $\endgroup$ – ShemSeger May 22 '15 at 18:34

The Ultra-Dimensional-Gardening Portal Gun (5000)

I'm envisioning more of a kind of dimension-wormhole insta-swap kind of thing, switching the millions of tons of rock and earth and stuff with air. It's the only way I could imagine this not causing some kind of a natural catastrophe (and this IS ultra-handwavium with closed eyes) I dunno, imagine it as some kind of a ultra-boosted gardening version of the portal gun

I liked my idea so I'm fleshing it out a bit more :P

Humanity has cracked travel between dimensions, allowing them to travel very quickly (FTL). Thus Alice's family out boating on Aquus Prime.

The technology has been around long enough that it is now used in household items, it is clean energy (obviously powered by fngrSnap tech):

Cooking: Ovens now are simply linked through a partial gateway to a huge heat source, cooking food rapidly.

Entertainment: Portals are opened to live sets for reality TV, news and discovery channels and ... others.

Storing: Most families have allocated areas in parallel dimensions for everything from storing your boat in the winter, to parking your car, or that ugly vase you received from Aunt Geraldine on your birthday; accessible through your trusty portal gun.

Waste: Entire dimensions have been allocated to specific material storing or waste disposal. Thrash cans have been linked to it etc...

Gardening: A gardening (or landscaping) version of the trusty household portal gun also exists, it comes with a variety of modes and is linked to a dozen different material storage dimensions and worlds allowing everyone a bit of fun at playing god. It is however heavily regulated to avoid apocalyptic mental breakdowns in between users.

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    $\begingroup$ This is great. A bit handwavy, but very Hitchhiker's Guide style. You just persuaded me to remove the science-based tag. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa May 21 '15 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ The porn industry would be epic. Also, waste could be routed directly into a sun for instant incineration, or a black hole, or something. No need to waste dimension. (literally). $\endgroup$ – Roddy of the Frozen Peas May 21 '15 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ A very long time ago an issue of White Dwarf magazine had an RPG adventure (I don't recall the specific game) wherein a forge used a magical portal to the sun to provide the heat. That idea always stuck with me. $\endgroup$ – Matt Jones May 22 '15 at 16:11

With unlimited energy, and an afternoon to get the job done, I think anti-matter is going to be the best way.

A large-scale power plant generating 2000 MWe would take 25 hours to produce just one gram of antimatter.
One gram of antimatter annihilating with one gram of matter produces 180 terajoules, the equivalent of 42.96 kilotons of TNT (approximately 3 times the bomb dropped on Hiroshima)

So with unlimited energy the only real question is how much you will need, and for that placement is going to be key. Put a couple supercomputers on the job of calculating the structure of the mountain to determine the optimal placement and force needed.

The hardest part is going to be getting the anti-matter deep enough into the mountain that it will shatter it, instead of just using it as a backstop and sending the energy out into the atmosphere.

Some automated digging robots could do that, but would probably take longer than an afternoon. Maybe a 4 day holiday weekend project?

Lets say you can dig a shaft down to the heart of the mountain, using some natural fissures and stuff... I'd try 4 grams to start with. Should at least knock the top off, which could get Alice her ocean view, assuming she avoids the nuclear winter.

  • $\begingroup$ Another hard part: what to do when bits of the mountain come raining back down. $\endgroup$ – ckersch May 21 '15 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ The trick is to shatter it and blow the base out so it collapses, instead of throwing a lot off chunks up into the air. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 May 22 '15 at 3:47

With a 3D Optical Projector, Alice can make any front-porch view she likes, no mountain-moving required! Simply load the desired view into the Optical Projector, and use the simple point-and-click view editor to alter the projected view from Alice's porch. Now equipped with optical-scanner to replicate your current front porch view for easy editing!

Range does not exceed field of front porch, does not inhibit view of others from other front porches, and is environmentally-safe. Batteries not included.

  • $\begingroup$ Point-and-click? That sounds terribly low-tech. $\endgroup$ – Atsby May 21 '15 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Atsby Magic wand accessory sold separately. $\endgroup$ – Zibbobz May 21 '15 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ To be fair, 3D Optical Projector Company tried to create the Matrix version of its tech - which would have featured thought-driven graphics, but people were worried about "exercising" and "real experiences" and other such non-sense. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble May 21 '15 at 20:36

A problem you don't address with limitless energy is artificial intelligence. At some point she has to harness the energy to do the work, and a primary problem is having the expertise to move the mountains without any bad side effects.

Without such expertise, a toddler could move a mountain and destroy a city full of people in the process.

So I think that not only are you going to have to develop the energy to do so, but also the intelligence to carry out the desired action with relatively little thought.

While nanomachines have their place, I think in this case what is really needed is a way to influence gravitons - tiny elementary quantum particles that may or may not (in your story they do) affect the gravitation field of objects. Therefore Alice has at her command a machine capable of affecting all the gravitons in the related material to be moved, and she can terraform, move, and landscape according to her pleasure.

The intelligence need not be very good - the level of intelligence the nanobots in Big Hero 6 displayed would be enough. You simply think of what you want, and they, within their parameters, figure out how to accomplish the goal. Not necessarily sentience, but enough to understand realities of the physical world, as well as the laws of ownership and legality of terraforming within one's sphere of influence.

This machine would simply do it on the quantum level. This could not only mean moving materials, but changing fundamental properties temporarily - such as having the dirt behave as a liquid to flatten out an area, then having the mountains lift up complete with dirt, plants, animals, and place on the now-firm but newly flat area designated.


Virtual Reality

Why live in a reality with ugly mountains blocking your view when you can live in a better one?

Alice's plan to remove the mountain really only makes sense if she's the only one it will affect. Frank, Billy, and Bob, for example, may be avid skiiers, while Gertrude doesn't care about the mountain, but is worried about the affect that moving it will have on wind patterns for her farm.

It may be possible that Alice is a Magrathean and is building herself the perfect planet, but the level of technology required to build a planet from the ground up is higher than the level of technology required to build a planet in VR at a high enough resolution that none of the human senses can distinguish it from reality.

Enhanced Reality

If you have to go to the Earth cabin instead of living in VR, why worry about seeing anything that you don't want to?

Alice, of course, can also just get an enhanced reality chip placed in her brain. This chip will modify what she sees, replacing the mountains with a perfect view of whatever is on the other side of those mountains. Her nanodrones provide the necessary footage of whatever she wants to look at. If she wants, she can also tap into her VR feeds and replace the mountains with something entirely virtual, while still seeing and interacting with the nearby real world at the same time.

The downside of this approach, of course, is that Alice's mother may stop her from tapping into her ER feeds while at the dinner table.


There are a few issues besides how to dismantle a mountain range and where to move the megatonnes of material left over.

Alice might not like the view, but what about her neighbours who do want to see mountains. There are certainly some property rights issues involved here, or maybe a Hatfield vs McCoy feud of competitive mountain range building/destruction in a tit for tat cycle. When the Neighbours get really annoyed, they might decide to build the Himalayas on her front porch.

Besides property rights, there is also the issue of plate tectonics. These mountains got there due to natural forces, such as subduction of one of the Earth's plates under another, so the sudden removal of megatonnes of rock will have some pretty dramatic consequences both there and at the plate boundary. Maybe Alice likes the view of erupting volcanoes? Earthquakes and tsunamis also will be part of the new landscape for a while as well.

Finally, having unlimited energy is not "all that" unless there is a mountain sized heat sink somewhere at hand. Deploying energy to do work in this universe will release waste heat (second law of energy), and more energy or doing work faster (removing a mountain in a day) just scales the problem enormously. Alice might discover the mountain is melting halfway through the afternoon. Once again, the neighbours might object to their favorite sea boiling away due to the waste heat being released by this bit of geoengineering. A big handwave of dumping waste heat into a baby universe might solve that problem, but if you can do that, why not just make your own universe free of annoying mountains, noisy neighbours and unwanted cosmic events and move there instead?


Why treat the symptoms when you can fix the cause? Just lopping off the mountains won't stop them from growing back.

Reverse the tectonic plates and make a divergent boundary where the mountains are. The mountains will fall in and it's done, probably zero other side-effects.

  • $\begingroup$ This sounds to me like it would take a while to accomplish. Either that, or it would cause some massive problems on the other end of those tectonic plates, where volcanoes will spring up and erupt at the same rate as the mountains descend. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh May 21 '15 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh Do we care? That's like, really far away from us. Those other ends. Plus it really sounds like someone else's problem. $\endgroup$ – Samuel May 21 '15 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ I'm more worried about how that someone else is going to solve that problem. With unlimited energy, they have a lot of options, most of which I would find inconvenient. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh May 21 '15 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh Well, the question is confined to how to get rid of the mountains, not diplomatic relations with the other side of the tectonic plate. So, I don't think a down vote is in order for this answer when considering the scope of the question. $\endgroup$ – Samuel May 21 '15 at 19:57
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    $\begingroup$ @ckersch She could coordinate it with some baking that requires significant shaking. It's a feature, not a bug. $\endgroup$ – Samuel May 21 '15 at 21:18

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