Rachel Armstrong’s presentation at Starship Congress so impressed me that I was quick to ask her to offer it here. I’m delighted to say that it will be only the first of what will become regular appearances in these pages. Much could be said about this visionary thinker, but here are some basics: Dr. Armstrong is co-director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) in Architecture & Synthetic Biology at The School of Architecture & Construction, University of Greenwich, London, a 2010 Senior TED Fellow, and Visiting Research Assistant at the Center for Fundamental Living Technology, Department of Physics and Chemistry, University of Southern Denmark. She completed clinical training at the John Radcliffe Medical School at Oxford in 1991, and in 2009 embarked on a PhD in chemistry and architecture at University College London.
Perhaps only someone with this kind of diverse training could tackle the novel approach to building materials called ‘living architecture,’ that suggests it is possible for our buildings to share some of the properties of living systems. And clearly Dr. Armstrong is just the person to head Project Persephone, the Icarus Interstellar effort to conceive of worldship designs that are themselves living and sustainable for millennia, not so much artifacts as emerging entities that evolve over time even as they nurture their starfaring inhabitants. In what follows, Dr. Armstrong gives us a glimpse of arriving colonists adapting to a new planet and then moves on to describe how the worldships that carry them might function.
by Rachel Armstrong
“A world like ours, except for the emptiness.” Oliver Morton, 2003.
There is a small cluster of dwellings, on a watery planet way beyond this solar system, where pioneering explorers called Newmans, who have come down from the artificial moon, hang out. They are joined in their terraforming activities by oddlings who are not quite Newman – they have a more sprightly stride and a quicker eye for new signs of life. The Newmans have travelled across the centuries to establish themselves on the planet Gliese 581g. This was rather a mouthful, so they renamed it Nostalgia. Their first terraforming move was to sprinkle the precious dirt from their homeland into the planet’s atmosphere, which carried living seeds from their laboratory experiments. After decades, these creeping chemistries went ‘native’ with interesting results. Now slithering scoundrels flop, gaping out of the silt and flap tirelessly on the beach in an evolutionary race to gain a colonizing foothold on the hallowed dry land.
While the sentinels, who have only just evolved their magnificent tri-legs, which raise their skinny bodies out of the puddles, scream “no room!” and pick off the scoundrels in droves as they flail helplessly, in the effort to dry-dirt upgrade. But these frantic events make the planet sound like it’s teaming with life, when it’s not. Despite the sentinels’ protests, there is plenty of room. Yet the ecosystem is fragile and if it was not for the Newmans, it might have been a few billion more years before the carbon rich silt yielded any life forms at all. However, once loosed, the Newmans’ laboratory cultures have made a very good job of metabolising the dirt, and have literally, succeeded in eating themselves into existence. Every evening in the thirty-hour diurnal cycle, which is precision marked by the geyser clock, the Newmans stroll down to the brimstone lake and dip their bread with a giant spoon into the simmering waters, so they can feast upon the protein-rich pinworms that devour the succulent bait.
The pinworms have only one collective neurone that glows prettily when they swarm. But as lovely as their thin thoughts may be, they can weave no memory of the previous night’s feast. So the pinworm learn nothing about their fate and continue to devour the bread – made by the Newmans from flour that is carefully ground from the leftovers of pinworm feasts. Yes, it’s a strange place – but no stranger than the planet from which they hailed – a former blue, watery planet where the ice caps had long melted and the only remaining evidence there were ever oceans was a steam clogged atmosphere that never stopped spewing torrential rain.
The Humans, the evolutionary ancestors of the Newmans, built their worldship from space debris and fled their planet, which was in shockingly poor condition. The ship ripped itself from Earth’s orbit as the nuclear fusion engines were started and the already nostalgia-struck explorers rubbernecked for one last fleeting view of their home. They were expecting a memorable spectacle and were disappointed. The massive communications holofields gave them no farewell view of the pale blue dot of legend, but soiled their memories with a dirty, greyish mass – which was scarred by the creeping cracks of vast gullies, poisoned by leaking piles of toxic plastic and gnawed by flash floods. Indeed, these inhospitable conditions would drive the Humans that remained – to seek shelter as their world collapsed in an eyeless, subterranean existence.
But, of course, fantastic voyages to other worlds and what adventures they may hold, are as old as storytelling. Yet in the modern age we have access to technologies that enable us to write our dreams beyond the world of stories and transcribe our imaginations into physical forms. It is impossible to say which leads – reality or our imaginations – since the two are so tightly coupled that philosophers are unlikely to ever need to worry about their own obsolescence. And yet, surfing the tidal time wave of change not only requires agile thinking and the capacity to act upon it – but also relies on our ability to think beyond our conventions and customs. At the start of this millennium we have adopted a condition of comfortable familiarity and Romantic idealisation of our resources on earth. Under the self-regulating gaze of Gaia these, rather magically, never ‘really’ get old, run out or even poison us – an irony indeed as our industrial processes turn our cherished idylls into the toxic landscapes that are ‘not quite fatal’, described by Rachel Carson.
While futurists look to the horizon, or scan the blue sky for solutions to the conditions faced by humanity in the 21st century, they seldom seek to explore the black sky for insights and boldly probe the possibilities of the completely unknown. Indeed, some consider interstellar exploration a folly when there are more immediate problems to fix using our tried and tested approaches. Yet, when these established methods are actually part of the problem itself, it is time to take Einstein’s advice and step outside of our comfortable cognitive space that gave rise to the problems in the first place and plunge into the abyss of black sky thinking – not as a self-destructive act – but a creative tactic to uncover fertile terrains that may inform the choices and actions of our current and future generations, both on Earth and amongst the stars.
Yet if we are to conceptually and physically leave the planet for the sake of human advancement and expansion, then we first need to consider what it means to be ‘earth bound’. Earth bound is a term used by Bruno Latour to describe humans that recognise the Earth’s ecology as being integral to their identity. Earth bound therefore depicts a cultural condition for those generations that are always heading for earth, as they are unable to escape its materiality and its laws. In interstellar terms, we are earthbound, being tied to and shaped by our materiality and seeking other habitable earths that will promote our survival. Perhaps we may even carry our native terrestrial soils with us, so we may flourish in lands way beyond our origins.
I am project leader for Persephone, which is one of the Icarus Interstellar projects that catalyse the construction of a crewed interstellar craft within a hundred years – and responsible for the design and implementation of a living interior to the worldship. Although the details of Icarus Interstellar have not been formalised, the ideas that I will share with respect to the design and engineering of Persephone, are best suited to a Slow, Wet Worldship. You may even imagine this soggy interior as being in a very physical sense, ‘alive’. If it is to survive interstellar travel over evolutionary timescales, which may exceed a thousand years – then it will need to gather resources from extra terrestrial sites. But, where do you start in designing and developing a ‘living’ interior for such a vessel? The vital technologies for a worldship do not depend on mechanical systems alone but also soft, nature-based ones – like the ones, for example that encircle the outer surface of our own planet – which carry out useful work through metabolism – and challenge our notions of ‘control’ through their innate agency. Indeed, for a living system to be sustained, it needs to be kept from reaching equilibrium.
In other words, the design and engineering priorities are to preserve flow and flux – rather than maintaining the integrity of a hierarchical series of objects, as in the case of machines. But once living systems are established within a niche environment, they bring many unique features that increase survivability – such as, robustness, flexibility, the ability to deal with unexpected events, the capacity for propagation and the propensity to adapt and evolve, even when there is a relatively limited flow of exchange, as in a troglodyte cave. In thinking about evolutionary timescales, they are most frequently depicted in space operas as modifications of current humans and machines, where the surroundings – the living spaces in the worldship – may be taken as a constant. But in space, the fate of the earthbound is tightly coupled to more than just their machines. When they evolve, it is with their whole ecology – and while we do not factor this in for a terrestrial setting, it may be critical to take a holistic view for long term space colonization. Persephone therefore aims to deal with worldship habitats as extended human ecosystems and as a point of reflection on our current ecological challenges.
Perhaps you have recently heard someone observe that the human body is 90 percent bacteria. These collections of microbes are called the human ‘biome’ and they appear to be critical to our health, nutrition and even in regulating our moods. While we consider these relationships as being symbiotic in a terrestrial environment, we have no idea what happens to them over prolonged time periods in a worldship – especially as bacteria evolve much faster than we do. Well, not quite no idea – the Salmonella pathogen has been shown to increase its virulence 3 to 7 times under reduced gravity in the ISS, as the result of ‘fluid shear’ which makes the bacteria think they’re inside a gut.
However, from an ecosystems perspective, Persephone is also aware of the difficult task it faces as the new kid on the block in the challenging legacy of biosphere design.
Richard Buckminster Fuller, viewed the earth as a ‘well-provisioned ship, on which we sail through space’ – a neatly, cling film wrapped, pale blue dot – surrounded by a dark, murky universe – that is separated from the cosmic fabric by its exalted earth-ness. But David Deutsch has criticized Fuller’s lyrical idea of Spaceship Earth as a harmonious habitat, afloat in a barren cosmos – as being difficult to defend, even metaphorically. In only 4.5 billion years our sun will become a bad tempered red-giant, prone to cosmic fits of ill temper that will swallow us whole. Deutsch echoes Darwin’s view of the world, governed by a Nature that is ‘red in tooth and claw’ – and while it creates – it is also ready to tear our world apart.
The first real effort to create a terrestrial ‘ark’ to demonstrate that careful management alone can produce functional ‘closed systems,’ was the Soviet BIOS-3 series of experiments that ran from 1972 to 1984. They supported a community of three people supported with an algal cultivator and a ‘phytron’ where sunlight was simulated to grow wheat and vegetables. While BIOS-3 demonstrated that chlorella algae could produce oxygen and that it was possible to recycle up to 85% of the water in the system, it was not a ‘closed’ biosphere. Dried meat and energy were provided from external sources and human waste was stored instead of being recycled back into the system.
The mission was attempted again with Biosphere 2 in the 1990s that aimed to understand how people in close confines, in a closed ecological system could work together over a sustained period. Yet, it was quickly clear that despite being equipped with a desert, rainforest, and ocean – it was going to be very difficult to create a sustainable environment. Oxygen levels steadily fell, the ocean acidified, internal temperatures rose, CO2 levels fluctuated, vertebrates and pollinating insects died, while the crew became depressed, dysfunctional and malnourished. Only the cockroaches and ants thrived.
Of course, there is nothing ‘sustainable’ about closed systems, despite McDonough and Braungart’s success with promoting their industrially friendly Cradle-to-Cradle approach. The truth is that closed systems, with living things in them – are coffins – and will ultimately grind down to an entropic halt. Regardless of the attractive view that Fuller paints of our world, Earth is not and has never been a closed system – it gets external energy, lots of it, from the sun and is constantly bombarded by cosmic rays, one of the sources of mutation and variation in our DNA. Yet, for those who would like to insist that the earth is closed because ‘effectively’ no matter leaves the planet – other than the notable exceptions of space telescopes, robots, kilograms of bacteria and piles of space junk – it is perhaps worth remembering Einstein’s equation E=mc2. This elegant concept describes matter and energy as different versions of the same thing. So, in physical terms – our planet being soaked in sunlight – can be regarded as receiving a continual flow of matter.
Indeed, the Earth receives many cosmic packages in a more familiar material form as meteorites, asteroids and cosmic dust. Our planet is being rained on from space. The majority of meteors that bombard the earth are little more than particles of dust. Larger ones enter the earth’s atmosphere and rapidly burn up to form small meteors, and micrometeorites. Ten thousand tons of this extra-terrestrial shrapnel falls on the earth every day. Admittedly the more spectacular large-scale material payloads are no longer so frequent in the vacuum of space that they’re abundant – but they are not THAT rare in the history of the earth. Indeed, Paul Davis notes that earth’s oceans were leftovers from intense asteroid bombardment during the Hadean period. And earlier this year an asteroid exploded over the region of Chelyabinsk in Russia bringing its heavenly gifts of destruction, mayhem and a smattering of weakly magnetic, radioactive rocks.
My point is that in proposing a ‘living’ interior for a worldship, which contains living things – the system needs to be imagined and designed as an open system – or our worldship will become the universe’s most beautifully designed and best travelled compost heap. Yet, even if we can build a worldship to operate within an ‘open’ cosmic system that can munch on cosmic foods such as, electromagnetic spectra and dirty asteroids – there is an even a deeper issue to address, which relates to the way we design and engineer with lifelike systems.
In 1948 Erwin Schrodinger noted that the characteristic of life is that it resists the decay towards entropic equilibrium. This observation is profoundly important when thinking about the design of an environment for living things, as it requires us to consider far-from equilibrium conditions as the substrate for our interventions. This flies in the face of all our design efforts to history, because when we design, we generally assume that our surroundings are at equilibrium and therefore we are engaged in making a world of objects. Yet, if we look at the very large and very small scales of existence, this object-centred version of reality does not hold true. When the atom was split last century, strange subatomic particle worms were released into reality and our imaginations – as leptons, bosons and hadrons. And when we dive down into the nature of these massless specks of matter, they are anything but still, existing as probabilistic clouds of nearly nothingness. Their essence is so primitive that they do not exist in nature and can only be experienced in the most indirect way of ‘seeing’ anything ever.
In the biggest Swiss watch ever made – the Large Hadron Collider – a whole particle superhighway is dedicated to evidencing the imperceptible. Buried 100 metres underneath the Swiss/French border, the LHC viewing platforms orchestrate miniscule Ballardian fantasies by smashing primordial plasma streams, of hydrogen and lead ions, into one another. As the particles shatter in layers upon layers of thick sensate materials, sophisticated algorithms interpret their screams from the wreckage and translate them into digital visualizations. And once you’ve witnessed the screams of a particle dying, how can anything around you ever be still again?
In building a new world, Persephone is invoking the existence of a new nature and if we are to design a space that supports dynamic systems, then we must learn to effectively design at non-equilibrium states – and create environments with material flows, whose cultural equivalent is dirt. Design hates dirt – as it is aesthetically and materially subversive. Yet the various forms of dirt – such as, shit, grit and dust – when combined, have powerful transformative potential.
In space, shit is surprisingly useful.
Dennis Tito’s ship will protect its astronauts from cosmic radiation using food and water, which contains more radiation absorbing atoms than metal. And since organic matter blocks rather than absorbs the radiation, it apparently also remains safe to eat. The lucky married couple’s excrement will gradually replace these larder supplies during their round-trip to Mars scheduled for 2018. Yet, practical development of the concept is needed so Tito’s space honeymooners, and generations after them, don’t find themselves in a round trip to a sub standard hotel in Benidorm, full of unpleasant sights and smells. However, these concepts add ecological depth to the idea of space travel. More than 90 percent of wastewater can be recovered using membrane-filtering techniques – and indigestible fiber in human faeces can be transformed into a material that resembles an adobe brick wall. Greenhouse gases – namely carbon dioxide, methane gas and water vapor – can also be harvested. While these processes are not cost effective in short-term missions, in long-term missions – where systems are effectively closed – these approaches are increasingly valuable. Therefore when building for worldship interiors, it is worth remembering that all civilizations are founded on their relationship with the potent transformer that we call soil.
Persephone’s first task is to identify her native soils – to transform and develop them into subjects worthy of design – exquisite stuff – that is not simply a life-support system – but provides the very context and meaning for living processes. Soils are a living web of relationships within complex bodies that will eventually grow old and die. Plants take root in the rich chemical medium and bind the particles together to attract animal life. Conversely, soil harbors fungi and bacteria that break down the bodies of dead creatures and turns them into more soil. The speed of this dynamic conversion process varies. In fertile areas it may take fifty years to produce a few centimeters of soil but in harsh deserts it can take thousands of years. Soils are biological cities. They house, nourish and provide the vital infrastructure for terrestrial life, which laid the foundations for the establishment of ecosystems, the evolution of humans and the construction of the built environment. The rich complexity of soil systems provides a model and literal substrate for a built environment that can self-maintain and connect with ecological systems.
On the face of it – it may appear a straightforward thing to grow a soil – like we might construct a building. Soil scientists observe how we can mix the various particles, adjust the acidity, compost the organic substrate and bring these inorganic and organic worlds together. But making a soil is more than measuring ingredients for a recipe, they are composed of matter that possesses the vibrancy and vivid hues of the rainbow, embody the poetry of symbiosis – and perhaps most importantly – they are our binding contract with Nature.
But how may we forge a contract with Nature in space, where no native biology is known to exist – only physics and chemistry. Over the last few years, I have been working with living chemistries and synthetic biologies, shaping materials that possess a will and exert a force of their own, independently of a central program or my design and engineering intentions.
These materials have formed primitive, dynamic cell-like structures – or protocells.
I have been able to clump these primitive chemical assemblages into oily vessels to punctuate a cybernetic, hylozoic ground where they fixed carbon dioxide from gas hungry solutions.
I have used gravity to infiltrate gel-like matrices that creep towards the ground, producing Liesegang bands of chemical separation and reconciliation.
And I have exploited the relentless splitting of crystals into rhizomatous mucous fronds, which lengthen and grow when entangled with carbohydrate polymers.
Persephone proposes to create her soils, before she even contemplates the possibility of ‘life’, by applying the physical and chemical principles of their native environment. She aims to develop an architectural practice of natural computing – a term inspired by Alan Turing’s interest in the computational powers of Nature – to produce a new kind of spontaneously self-organizing and autopoietic system that is unique to the worldship. Persephone will harness the creativity of particle worms and develop their connections at different scales using the parallel processing power of chemistry to create a condition of fertility that, within definable limits of probability, may give rise to its own life-like events.
Soil is a probabilistic matrix that is peppered with events and flows, within which life is not inevitable – but increasingly feasible. It inserts time and space into chemical systems so that the potent conditions are delayed from reaching equilibrium and happen again and again and again. Soil hosts many chemical events that arise from the horizontal coupling between dynamic systems. It may give rise to living things by facilitating chemical assemblages such as, Stuart Kauffman’s autocatalytic sets. It offers a fertile field in which living things are anthropogenically midwifed into existence by farming technologies. Yet, while life is the event by which we may measure the success of soils, it is the product of a multitude of partnerships that form the heaving, squirming mass of soil bodies. Soils are the site of huge amounts of metabolic work, which shape the muck that decides whether ecosystems will thrive and ultimately, produces the conditions that give rise to cities.
And here, Persephone’s challenges begin. Although this presentation began with a story, the project itself is real and fully intends to go ‘beyond’ fiction, proposing that the way of opening up new worlds is first through the imagination, where uncertainty is a driver for radical creativity in a probabilistic, cosmic landscape – the Black Sky.
Whatever the odds of Persephone’s success in her endeavours, she is aware that she will not triumph because of the odds – but in spite of them. Indeed, the only way to guarantee her – and our own extinction – is simply to take our continued existence for granted and hand over control to the ants and cockroaches, without trying anything new, or daring at all.
And now, the oddlings looked up to the sky under the green reflected light of their artificial moon – simply called Newman. Sometimes they could see the stars twinkling between the cracks in its regolith and asteroid shell and at other times they wondered how things might change when the other Newmans came down to settle Nostalgia’s surface. But each night, little changed. The pinworms continued to swim brainlessly in the brimstone, the scoundrels floundered and the sentinels wrapped their long necks around their tri-legs, as they settled down for ten long hours sleep before the dawn broke – and all the metabolic slithering started again.
“They will not be a new story’s beginning, rather the creation of a new chapter. Their expectations and hopes are already being created on the Earth today …” Oliver Morton, 2003.