read::zebra's

Shrinking ourselves—and our animals—for space travel

In Excerpts, Thoughts on March 25, 2011 at 10:47 am

Some animals would be terrifying if they were any bigger than they are. A 7-foot praying mantis, for instance. Or a 2-ton frog. But making big animals small immediately renders them adorable. I fell in love a long time ago with the idea of a cow the size of a Scottish terrier. Or a triceratops the size of a rabbit.

Now, in the surprisingly silly world of serious science, a few researchers are exploring the idea of shrinking both humans and our livestock, not to make them cuter but for more practical applications. Donald Platt, of the Florida Institute for Technology:

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.

GOOD’s Food Hub explores this idea’s implication on food, and mentions a project by Arne Hendriks called The Incredible Shrinking Man. Part of it is a restaurant concept called The Disproportionate Restaurant.

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.

Our built environment would obviously be affected. At 50 cm (19.7 inches), existing structures would all seem like skyscrapers; distances would stretch out—walking a couple of miles would suddenly be quite formidable. The meaning of “human-scale” would change. Eventually, though we’d be limited in strength and speed, our new size would open up new ways to organize cities, perhaps building urban passageways around and through the now abandoned (or maybe retrofitted) structures. Perhaps a 30-story building would become a 90-story building, as each floor was divided into three.

If not all animals shrunk with us, and I don’t see how they could be, the natural environment would pose problems too. Coyotes, hawks, rats, stray dogs. We’d still be bigger than a praying mantis, but some of these others would become slightly harder to deal with.

As we’ll shrink, our environment and everything in it will appear a lot larger. The fear of large animals and objects is called megalophobia. Shrinking mankind could involve a growth in the number of megalophobiacs, especially in relation to other creatures.

Then there’s the issue of the brain.

And the brain would have to function at slightly under 30 grams (and not with the 1400 grams we have at present). That’s about the size of a cat brain. No need to stress the fact that we’ll need to find a solution for that one.

It’s probably important to note that while this is enjoyable to explore, I don’t support any efforts to actually genetically modify human beings; history teaches us that our idealistic, technological fixes usually backfire significantly. It is interesting to note, however, that the built environment has been retrofitted for little people before—in Ypsilanti, Michigan. During World War II.

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Last image by Robert Therrien.

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