HOW many dolphins does it take to run a computer? "A couple hundred," says Doug Michels, designer of Project Bluestar. Project Bluestar is a futuristic plan for a think tank in space. Dolphins would program its computer with their natural radar.
To show how this would work, floor plans and artists' conceptions of Project Bluestar are currently arrayed at the Octagon Museum, along with some kids' conceptions of learning centers in space.
But even given the day of the dolphin, Project Bluestar is not just any kind of space station. Besides supporting life, this one would support ideas.
Michels thinks weightlessness will make us think better. "Just as zero gravity affects materials and our physiology," Michels says, "so too will weightlessness have an effect on thought processes." Scientists on Project Bluestar would analyze these changes in human thought behavior.
There is even a kiddie think tank. Local artist Tom Ashcraft has designed one for the exhibit, but looking into "Cone Zero" (cone home?) is about as interesting as watching seaweed through a porthole. Good otherworldly noises, though.
According to the plans, Bluestar scientists would work in a Saturnine ring of laboratories. Standard space station stuff, but this ring would surround a sphere of water (where the computer programmers would swim, and happily cavort). In the heart of this ocean would beat the computer. While details have yet to be worked out -- such as who would do the thinking -- the sphere of water (Michels calls it an "iconosphere") would project holographic images of ideas for the scientists to study.
To build Bluestar, which was his Loeb Fellowship project in space architecture at Harvard this year, Michels has some suggestions on finding the materials. They could all come from space, he says.
The water would be obtained from melting a glacial asteroid, although how to make the water salty for the dolphins gives him pause. "Morton's?" he suggests.
The computer would be space-grown from crystal, which grows better in space anyway.
The two domes that encase the whole shebang would be made of what Michels calls "space glass -- which is a clear metal, a clear titanium alloy." When pressed, Michels allows as "It doesn't exist. But it's close to existing." It would be manufactured in space, where materials can be made lighter and stronger.
The water would gather into a sphere because water tends to do that in weightless conditions, says Michels. And it would stay in place through "acoustic levitators" (which direct sound waves at the material). Acoustic levitation actually exists, a space-shuttle development invented by Dr. Taylor Wang of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
There is one sticky part to Project Bluestar. Say, for example, the dolphins were told to make the iconosphere look like earth, so that scientists could study the origin of the human species.
The only problem is telling that to the dolphins.
A complex language would have to be developed. When faced with such obstacles, Michels has the perfect answer: "I'm an architect, not a scientist."
But Project Bluestar doesn't have to work, even in the year 2022, which is about the time Michels thinks it would be possible.
"In all endeavor," says Michels, "visionary thinking is important. The United States started as just an idea, and look where we are today."
IDEAS ABOVE EARTH: SPACE ARCHITECTURE -- At the Octagon Museum, 1799 New York Ave. NW, through August 17.