Biosphere2–Big Science

Physicist Stephen Hawking said that the long-term survival of humankind depends on our ability to colonize other planets. Easier said than done.

That was the idea behind Biosphere2, but that experiment revealed some fatal flaws in our level of readiness to live in a sealed environment. Now, several iterations later, this very expensive and complex facility may be redeeming itself.

I decided  to visit Biosphere2 on a whim because I was passing by Tucson and because I had a $2-off coupon to get in. The sprawling compound is located, fittingly, on Oracle Road in the desert north of Tucson. Biosphere2 (our earth is Biosphere1) was funded by Edward Bass, a rich Texan with latent Star Trek ambitions.

I remember when the first group of “Biospherians” were sealed in the complex in the early 1990s to great media whoopla. The 3-acre facility, which replicates five earthly biomes, from desert to rainforest, from coral reef to ocean, was stocked with 3,000 species of flora and fauna intended to produce food and recreation for the eight humans who were sealed inside for two years.

The science behind the project was hugely complex. Maybe it was akin to building a tower to heaven–a little ahead of the technology and a little heavy on the hubris. In the end, the experiment was tarnished by some bad press, some questionable science, and because it turned out to be more difficult to produce enough food over the long haul than planned. (Enough nutrients, not enough calories.)

A decidedly Star Trek look in the desert

So, a bloated piece of real estate went looking for a buyer. Biosphere2 became a conference center; a research center for Columbia University (yes, the one in New York City), and now the University of Arizona is conducting research there.

While it is hugely expensive to run, the compound is also exquisitely suited for research. It’s the only place in the world where large-scale research can happen in a controlled environment. In the lower savannah, for example, the temperature can be changed every 30 feet and every 30 minutes.

the "lung" absorbs overheated air and returns cooled air to the facility

So, while the original purpose of Biosphere2 might have been informative, it’s real value might lie in the slow, plodding path of serious research. Stephen Hawking might be pleased, but colonizing other planets still seems far away.

Then, because the day had been so long, I camped for the night in the low-tech parking lot of a nearby mall.

Experiments in how plants absorb CO2 are happening in the 1/2-acre rainforest

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One Response to Biosphere2–Big Science

  1. Marcia Davis 19 January, 2011 at 4:47 pm #

    Thanks for an update on Biosphere2, Kate! You forget about stuff like that when you don’t live near it. I’m glad they’ve been able to make us of the facility!