The Boltham Legacy is a design project that discusses the potential and challenges of long term investments in technologies, and possibilities of technological and scientific long term thinking outside of existing economical and social/cultural models, by telling the story of a fictional 400 year space mission.
Most current technologies are developed for relatively short periods of time. Consumer products are usually built to last only a few years, even nuclear power plants from the seventies already face problems due to ageing of their electronic systems. Big investments in new technologies are only made when a profitable outcome is visible in the near future, often overlooking more desirable outcomes over longer terms.
The project presents the narrative of British billionaire Lloyd Frederic Boltham who secretly founded a private space program. Taking advantage of recent breakthroughs in synthetic biology and discoveries of unknown exoplanets, he succeeded in launching a secret long-term mission to send genetically engineered, metal-detecting bacteria to a planet far outside of the solar system. He hopes that the bacteria finds valuable metals that could be mined in the future when space mining technology and interstellar travel are more developed, and therefore his descendants might gain a monopoly in space mining. After his death the mission becomes the unique legacy of his family and several future generations will observe the journey of the space probe in secret.The narrative is presented through several physical artefacts hinting at different parts of the space mission. These artefacts include the will of Sir Boltham, a diagram of the capsule that transports the bacteria, a visualisation of the planet's resources showing the outcome Boltham hopes for, and the monitoring station that Boltham leaves to his family to monitor the progress of the mission.
The story acts as an example of a well considered long-term investment into technology from a mindset different to current industrial standards, and the narrative of a multi-generational, family owned space mission, shows the impact such investments could have on a human/cultural level. The mission control terminal as a central point of focus in the project's fiction emphasises, on the one hand, how far-future interactions could be directed/made meaningful, and on the other hand, how physical objects that are expected to function for hundreds of years differ from the objects in our current environment. The additional material such as Boltham's will and the diagram of the bacteria containing capsule explain the mission in more detail, helping to make the fictional narrative more tangible. These communicative functions of the different parts of the project are achieved through well-considered manufacturing, design details and the convincing and scientifically plausible description of the surrounding narrative.
Aiming at a diverse audience - from the interested public to people actively involved in the development of technology - the project uses design as a form of tangible storytelling that is able to highlight the deeply human aspects of technological development, while practically considering the challenges when designing objects and systems intended to function for such unusual time frames.
Boltham Family Crest
Space Mission DiagramThe diagram shows how the bacteria travels through space and colonises the planet
Lloyd Frederic Boltham's WillA member of the Boltham family reading Lloyd Frederic Boltham's will unveiling his secret space mission
Bacteria Capsule DiagramThe diagram shows the capsule that keeps the bacteria alive on its trip to the exoplanet
Planet Colonisation DiagramThe diagram shows an optimistic visualisation of the bacteria colonising the planet and revealing the resources to be found
Mission Monitoring StationMembers of the Boltham family are awaiting a signal transmission from the spacecraft at the custom build monitoring station in the Boltham residence
Signal Transmission DatesThe spacecraft transmits a signal every 60 days. All dates are engraved into metal plates that are installed on the monitoring station
Mission Progress MarkersOnce in ten years the spacecraft reaches a significant step in its journey which is celebrated by the placement of a marker and becomes a meaningful family event
Planet Colonisation Diagram
My work in general explores the (positive and negative) potentials of current technology and science. I am employing fictional narratives and alternative realities to discuss often complex/abstract scientific and technological topics in the form of designed artefacts. These artefacts are meant to touch the audience on a human, emotional level, engaging them with these topics that are not usually considered, and make technological and social developers and scientists question and see possible potentials of their work.
Research and Concept Development
Initially my work on "The Boltham Legacy" started with a biological/technological but also visual interest in biosensors and a fascination with the micro scale of biotechnology and its possible macro scale impacts. Looking at biotechnological examples like colour changing E-Coli bacteria and engineered plants that are able to detect land mines, I started exploring possible macro scale impacts of this technology from different angles.
Inspired by research in astrobiology and deep space observation I got wondering "What if biosensors could recolour a whole planet?". I started talking to experts from the fields of astrophysics and synthetic biology to see how feasible it would be to use bacteria as biosensors in space and what possible applications and scenarios could be. I started to create an engaging narrative that spans a diversity of sciences and technologies and shows an alternative approach to the application of these fields as an impressive human gesture. Inspired by a news article about American businessman Russ George who illegally dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean to conduct a geoengineering experiment, I created the fictional character of a British billionaire who uses biosensors to gain a monopoly in space mining.
While talking to an astrophysicist at UCL (London), who is specialised in spectography and deep space observation, and and a synthetic biologist, working with mineral sensing bacteria, it became clear that the technology to create mineral sensing bacteria that colonise distant planets, and to observe colour changes from earth, is not only feasible but already there. With this background I started planning and researching the terms of a private space mission that detects minerals on a planet outside of the solar system, and it became clear that the narrative not only shows an unusual combination of technologies and motivations, but also that such a mission would have to operate on an unusual schedule that spans multiple human lifetimes.
In my narrative the fictional British billionaire and aristocrat Lloyd Frederic Boltham assembles a team of scientists and engineers to work on his privately funded space mission. They engineer endolithic bacteria that is able to live without any oxygen and is able to detect different valuable minerals and change its own colour according to what they sensed. This bacteria is then secretly sent to an exoplanet far outside of the solar system with the aim to colonise this planet's whole surface so that it becomes a visualisation of its own mineral resources. It will take the spacecraft around 400 years to reach the planet with another few decades ahead for the bacteria to colonise the surface. With this unique long term investment, Lloyd Frederic Boltham aims to assure the future wealth of his family, which can use the information on resources outside of our solar system to gain a monopoly in space mining when the time comes that technology is advanced enough to operate a mining operation on their planet.
The bacteria is transported in a closed capsule that contains four incubation containers that assure an ideal steady environment. Every 100 years they migrate from one container to the next one finding a fresh environment to live in. Once the capsule arrived on the planet, four of its eight sides fold out, and the outside gate for the bacteria opens. Pheromones are sprayed on the surface of the planet to attract the bacteria onto the planet surface where they start colonising and reproducing.
Members of the Boltham Family monitor the progress of the mission from their private residence in Cornwall. The spacecraft regularly sends signals back to earth that are received by a big antenna at the Boltham's observatory. A custom made monitoring station interprets and displays the received information. This monitoring terminal is the interface between the family and what is happening in space. Every 60 days the antenna receives a signal from the spacecraft which becomes a major event for the members of the family who are coming together and awaiting the news on the progress of the mission.
The narrative of the space mission is communicated through several designed artefacts that are supposed to belong to the Boltham family.
Lloyd Frederic Boltham's will reveals the details of the space mission to his family after he died and gives a quick overview of the events and the context to the audience.
A large diagram of the bacteria capsule shows details of its construction and makes visible how the bacteria is kept alive and then initiates the colonisation of the exoplanet.
A visualisation of the potential mineral resources of the targeted planet represents the financial hopes that Boltham has for his mission and how the bacteria colonises the planet.
The central piece of the project is the custom made monitoring terminal that the Boltham family uses to follow the progress of the mission in secret. While the other design objects are mainly communicating the narrative, the terminal gives the opportunity to show how the family is getting engaged in their legacy, and on a more practical level, how the terminal has to be constructed and function to be reliable over the unusually long lasting mission.
The monitoring terminal is built out of durable materials and its aesthetic reflects the aristocratic and luxurious setting of the narrative as well as the technological and scientific nature of the mission. During the design and construction phase of the project I worked closely with a cabinetmaker and an electronic engineer and was supported by a distributor and manufacturer for durable fake marble.
The central part of the terminal is the display unit that interprets and displays the signals from the spacecraft. It uses simple electronics and mechanics to show the travelled distance of the spacecraft and the condition of the bacteria. A linear actuator, controlled by a gear system, is moving the display rod according to the received signal, and shows the position of the spacecraft on a linear scale. A flip dot display flips to one of two sides and shows whether the bacteria is still alive or if the mission has failed and it's dead. The display unit is placed on top of a pedestal with a heavy base and is protected against possible damage and dysfunction through several mechanisms like spring-loaded feet and a sealed glass case. Engraved metal plates on a table surrounding the front of the pedestal list all dates when a signal will be received (every 60 days) and the amount of the transmission delay caused by the growing distance to earth. The wooden inlays on this table reference traditional marquetry and illustrate the journey of the bacteria through space and the communication system in place between the terminal here on earth and the space probe. A set of small markers is installed on the right side of the tabletop. The family can use these to mark steps in the progress of the journey which becomes a family tradition and event as it only happens about every 10 years.
The narrative communicated in "The Boltham Legacy" delivers a well considered example for a long-term investment into technology that combines emerging scientific and technological developments in a new way. Based on personal motivations that are different from the ones we usually see, the project shows explicitly that technological development can be approached from alternative perspectives. I am not only using design to communicate this thought provoking story, but also as a way to consider the possibilities and challenges of the scenario in a practical and detailed way. The mission monitoring station, as a physical and functioning design object, shows the practical challenges of constructing objects for long timeframes, and exposes how different this is from most objects we are surrounded by. In a greater context the project shows that different approaches to technological development and application of science are practically possible and gives the opportunity to think about what these approaches could and should be. Combined with an almost cinematic or literary narrative, and a setting that emphasises the human challenges of such a mission, the designed objects are creating an engaging story that people can identify with and take to involve with and consider abstract scientific and technological research on a more personal/everyday level.