Project Sky+

March 15, 2013

In Project Sky+ I develop a personal device for Thinking Like a Cloud. It is sent into the atmosphere attached to a weather balloon. Clouds condense on its mesh wings and flow into a sample container. These cloud samples are analyzed for microorganisms and ingested by experimental subjects. Thinking Like a Cloud is a geo-engineering scheme to expand human consciousness and enable big-picture thinking.

*While waiting for a permit for a high altitude launch, we did the first tethered launch at Fei Ngo Shan peak in Hong Kong, where the clouds meet the ground.

The objective of Project Sky+, “Thinking Like a Cloud”, was developed after Aldo Leopold’s land ethics motto thinking like a mountain. It describes an ability to appreciate the interconnectedness of things over space and time, to see the long view rather than just the immediate demands. Today the perspective of a cloud might be even more apt than that of a mountain in representing systems thinking. The clouds have long served myth-makers, philosophers and scientists as the face and the boundary markers of the forces shaping our world. Today their ephemerality and complexity embodies the essence of dynamical interconnected systems.

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In Project Sky+ clouds are ingested by humans. Ingesting evokes the process of transformation: the eaten is materially transformed into the eater. The metaphor of the eaten imparting to the eater a trace of its essence is more literal than we might assume: the cloud microbiome is mixed with the subject’s gut microflora.

Nobody conceived of clouds as habitat for life, until a few recent studies. Microbes not only hitch rides in the clouds, traveling thousands of miles, but are metabolizing, reproducing, and ‘eating things up there. Their numbers in the clouds (over 100 different species in a single sample) suggest that they play a role in precipitation and in the way the clouds form. Cloud droplets form around Cloud Condensation Nuclei, particles such as pollen, or dust — or microbes. Not just ‘passive riders’, the microorganisms are in a way the essence of a cloud.

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Around 95% of the cells in human body belong to our microflora: humans are made mostly of microbes. What’s more, our individual microbiomes not only play a role in digestion and immune responses but also influence brain chemistry and human behavior. Including the microbiome as part of an individual is, some researchers said, a new way to look at human beings. An ingested cloud microbiome combines with our own microflora, rendering us part-cloud.

The cloud capture design is inspired by the modern fog collectors which are used to collect moisture out of the air.

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As the balloon moves through the atmosphere, the cloud moisture condenses on the two mesh wings of the Collector and flows into a container, which is protected by a reflux valve. The Rashel polypropylene mesh is especially efficient at capturing water droplets. It can extract 30% of the humidity from the cloud: around 0.7 to 1.75 L of water per m2, per hour.

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A Standard Fog Collector in a meteorological station and the same method adapted to collect fresh water.

Can one drink a concept? Perhaps not. But drinking a glass of cloud water containing microbial life which influences one’s own microflora makes one think about these things — water, clouds, microbes, humans, systems — a little differently. Thus, one’s mind is changed.

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Geo-engineering reshuffles our ideas about nature and our place in it, about technology, values and knowledge. It is inherently poetic, and inherently political. Like ambitious land art art proposals, geo-engineering schemes propose to rearrange the elements of the land and the sky: some of the ideas include injecting water into the atmosphere, creating artificial volcanos, or flooding the Sahara. Clouds and oceans have long been agents of the ungraspable and ephemeral, and the quest to “wring exactitude” from them still eludes scientists. Geo-engineering is an index of faith in human technological ability, dividing those who think technology can eventually solve our problems from those who think we don’t know nearly enough about the natural systems to intervene in them.