Searching for the Origins of the Universe in the Earth’s Driest Desert

Episode 10: With its extreme conditions and geological oddities, Chile is a prime spot for major tech projects.

By Ashlee Vance | December 28, 2016

 

Tourists visiting the Atacama Desert in Chile tend to head to the high-altitude oasis of San Pedro de Atacama. It’s a lovely place in the midst of some very inhospitable land. Adventurers go there. So do dirty hippies. And so do regular folk hoping to take in the exotic treats the land offers like geysers at 14,000-feet, mysterious watering holes and massive sand dunes that can be surfed, so long as you don’t mind friction in all the wrong places.

Taking Chilean frog poison in the name of tech journalism.
Taking Chilean frog poison in the name of tech journalism.
Source: Bloomberg

A few lucky people every year are guided farther off the beaten path. to a small village outside San Pedro de Atacama. This is the home of a shaman named Magdalena. She’s the daughter of political activists who were exiled from Chile decades ago. Magdalena, though, has returned to her homeland to perform a spiritual and physical cleanse on the willing. The cleanse consists of some burning, poisoning, and vomiting. It’s a relatively small price to pay for enlightenment. Take my word for it.

I spent two weeks in Chile filming this episode of Hello World, and Magdalena was one of many surprises. Chile does not usually pop to mind when you think about global tech hubs. The truth, though, is that Chile has some of the biggest, most dramatic tech projects you’ll ever see. You just have to be up for a bit of suffering to see them.

The world’s largest deposits of lithium are found in Chile.
The world’s largest deposits of lithium are found in Chile.
Source: Bloomberg

Outside the polar regions, the Atacama Desert is considered the driest place on earth. It’s a plateau about 10,000 feet above sea level that receives a heaping tablespoon of rainfall a year. You feel the intense dryness and altitude right away when you visit. After a couple of days, your skin starts to crack and your lungs struggle to pull in oxygen. You get light and funny in the head, and feelings exacerbated only by the intense heat of the day and the frigid night air.

The extreme conditions, along with the geological oddities of the place, make the Atacama perfect for a handful of big science operations. Chile, for example, appears to have the world’s largest deposits of lithium. They’re mined by pumping water up through underground salt beds to create pools of minerals. Thanks to the dry air, these pools quickly evaporate to leave a yellowish, oily lithium liquid that then gets processed and put into all our smartphones, laptops, and electric cars.

By some measures, ALMA is the largest astronomical project in the world.
By some measures, ALMA is the largest astronomical project in the world.
Source: Bloomberg

The altitude and zero humidity also make the Atacama Desert the ideal spot for very big telescopes. I had the luxury of nearly dying while visiting the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), a collection of 66 telescopes at 17,000 feet. By some measures, ALMA is the largest astronomical project in the world, and its telescopes are on a never-ending quest to find the origins of the universe and of life itself.

The surprises kept coming. To the south is Santiago, a city built on the back of mining wealth—with an ostentatious skyline and pollution to match. Chileans like to brag that Santiago is more stable, refined, and orderly than other South American capitals. This may be so, although the city’s economic success has also bred complacency, particularly when it comes to technology. Cultural and business conditions in Chile do not encourage risk-taking. Chile, for example, spent decades blocking people who declared bankruptcy from having a second go at running a business, an attitude that would not fly in Silicon Valley.

By some measures, ALMA is the largest astronomical project in the world.
Rodrigo Quevedo's company Rotatecno is building a low-cost wheelchair that can be controlled with face gestures and thoughts.
Source: Bloomberg

There is, however, a bright spot, and it’s called IF, or the Idea Factory. A wealthy idealist named Alejandra Mustakis has helped this technology incubator get off the ground, imbuing it with a mission to nurture tech startups with a social bent. Young companies are given a place to work and get connected to powerful politicians and investors. IF has facilities in wealthy neighborhoods, as well as some of Santiago’s poorest, and the results have been impressive. While visiting IF, I found a start-up called FreshWater that has built a machine to pull moisture out of the air and turn it into super-clean drinking water. Another startup has developed a low-cost wheelchair that can be controlled by thought alone.

Of all the trips I went on this year, this visit to Chile stood out as the hardest and most rewarding. Our crew trudged through the desert for 10 days. People got sick. Their skin fried. And they rejoiced at the splendor of the place and the night skies that seemed to dance. Given this backdrop, the spirit quest that Magdalena set me on felt fitting and inspiring. I hope you enjoy watching the episode as much as we enjoyed filming it.

Watch more from Hello World



Episode 7: England
England’s Bold Attempt to Revive Its Tech Industry

Episode 8: Japan
Japan’s Robot Inventors Are Creating the Future

Episode 9: Russia
Inside Russia’s Creepy, Innovative Internet