Since the dawn of space travel, scientists have approached the problem of human survival in such a hostile environment from two opposing angles: adapting the environment to humans, or vice-versa. The former approach has provided most of the solutions so far: spacesuits and spaceships shield humans from extreme temperatures and radiation, and one day, greenhouses may allow earth's crops to grow on Mars.
But, out on the fringes, big thinkers such as Manfred Clynes, who coined the word cyborg more than 50 years ago, and Craig Ventner, famous for sequencing the human genome, have wondered whether it might not be more effective to just re-design humans—using drugs, technology, and, most recently, genetic engineering—so that we can survive in space.
Ventner is experimenting with engineering synthetic bacteria that could repair damaged DNA or help astronauts absorb nutrients more effectively, and then introducing them into the human microbial biome. More radically still, Donald Platt, director of the space systems program at the Florida Institute of Technology, proposes using genetic engineering to create "Nano Animals":
If we can make livestock smaller we can take some with us and then have them available at our new home, perhaps on Mars.
It may even be possible to modify ourselves and make humanity smaller. This would be very beneficial for space travel where mass and volume are limited, and a surface base on another planet where gravity is less and resources are scarce.
So, while the idea of deliberately redesigning humans to be just 19.7 inches tall and 3.5 lbs sounds crazy, it's definitely under serious consideration in some circles. Indeed, Dutch artist and curator Arne Hendriks has spent the past several years seriously researching the possibilities and implications of shrinking the human species. As he explains on his project website:
The Incredible Shrinking Man is a speculative design research about the consequences of downsizing the human species to 50 centimeters [19.7 inches]. It has been a long established trend for people to grow taller. As a direct result we need more energy, more food and more space. But what if we decided to turn this trend around? What if we use our knowledge to shrink mankind?
In an interview with Regine Debatty on We Make Money Not Art, Hendriks explains that, in addition to working with Platt and other experts to research the physiological, psychological, genetic, and design implications of 19.7-inch tall humans, he has also partnered with a chef, Martijn Jansen, to study their potential diet. After all, if Hendriks' calculations are correct, our tiny descendants will only need 2 percent of the calories we currently require. Such a drastic reduction in consumption couldn't help but transform our relationship with food.
For the Transnatural exhibition currently on display in Amsterdam, Hendriks and Jansen have set up a research kitchen, the Disproportionate Restaurant, to investigate how shrinking people might change the way we farm, eat, and cook—not to mention how we deal with our waste. To experience the proportion shift, Hendriks and Jansen have been experimenting with currently available edible extremes, from prize-winning giant cabbages to micro-greens.
Hendrik explains to Debatty:
We have already established that you would only need one coffee bean for an espresso and one chicken could feed up to a hundred people. To better understand what that means we're planning to roast an entire ostrich carcass as if it were a chicken.
Visitors of all sizes are welcome to sample the Incredible Shrinking Man tasting menu. Meanwhile, around the central restaurant unit, Hendriks is installing objects, screening film clips, and holding workshops to explore what he calls "shrink culture." Among the items on display is a family farm, housed inside a re-purposed TV cabinet. Proving that for all the seriousness of his intent, he does not lack lack a sense of humor, Hendriks told Debatty:
In it we're growing cherry tomatoes and mini-courgettes. We realized that mini-vegetables are the culinary equivalent of dwarf-throwing, meaning there is a clear and multidisciplinary connection between smallness and entertainment.
I have no way of getting to Amsterdam before this exhibition closes, but if any of you do go, I would be very interested to read a review of the Disproportionate Restaurant! Meanwhile, for more on Hendriks' Incredible Shrinking Man research, read the full interview on We Make Money Not Art and check out his extensive and fascinating archives.
Images: (1) Speculative designs for a future space base, via Quiet Babylon; (2) The oxygen garden from Sunshine, via BLDGBLOG; (3) The head size of future humans, via The Incredible Shrinking Man; (4) Experimenting in the Disproportionate Kitchen, photo courtesy Arne Hendriks via We Make Money Not Art; and (5) A giant cabbage from the European Giant Vegetable Growers' Association, via The Incredible Shrinking Man.