Directly beneath the wilderness of savanna and forest, the farm,
and the modern apartments of the biospherians, lies the other face of
Bio2: the mechanical "technosphere." The technosphere is the scaffolding
put in place to help Bio2 pop. At several places in the wilderness,
stairs wind down to a cavernous basement stuffed with basementish
fixtures. Fifty miles of color-coded pipes as thick as an arm wind along
the wall. There are huge ductworks right out of the movie Brazil; miles
and miles of electrical wiring; workshops full of heavy-duty tools;
hallways crowded with threshing and milling machines; shelves of spare
parts; switchboxes, dials, vacuum blowers; over 200 motors, 100 pumps,
and 60 fans. It could be the inside of a submarine or the backside of
skyscraper. The territory is industrial grunge.
The technosphere supports the biosphere. Huge blowers circulate the
entire air of Bio2 several times in one day. Heavy pumps move the
rainwater. The motors of the wave machine run day and night. Machines
hum. This unabashedly manufactured world is not outside Bio2 but inside
its tissue, like bone or cartilage, an integral part of the greater
For example, Bio2's coral reef would not have worked without an eerie
backroom in the basement where the algae scrubbers hide. The scrubbers
were table-wide shallow plastic trays filled with a pool of algae. The
whole room was flooded with the same type of halide sunlamps as
illuminated artificial coral reefs in museums. The scrubbers were in
fact the mechanical kidneys of the Bio2 coral reef. They performed the
same function as a pool filter: to clear the water. The algae consumed
waste products from the reef and under the intense artificial sunlight
they proliferated in stringy green mats. The green strands soon clogged
the scrubber; and just like a pool or aquarium filter, the scrubber
needed to be scraped clean every ten days by some poor schmuck -- another
job for the eight humans. Cleaning the algae scrubbers (the harvest
became compost) was the most despised assignment in Bio2.
The nerve center of the whole system was the computer room run by an
artificial cortex of wires, chips, and sensors from around Bio2. Every
valve, every pipe, and every motor of the infrastructure was simulated
in a software network. Very little activity in the ark, either natural
or man-made, happened without the distributed computer knowing about it.
Bio2 responded as if it was one beast. About a hundred chemical
compounds were continuously measured in the air, soil, and water
throughout the whole structure. A potential profit-making technology
that SBV imagined spinning off the project was sophisticated
Mark Nelson got it right when he said that Bio2 was the "marriage of
ecology and technics." That's the beauty of Bio2-it's a fine example of
ecotech, the symbiosis of nature and technology. We don't know enough
yet how to invent biomes without installing pumps. But by using the
scaffolding of pumps now, we can try the system out and learn.
To a large degree it's a matter of learning a new form of control. Tony
Burgess said, "NASA goes about by optimizing resource utilization. They
take wheat and optimize the environment for the production of wheat. But
the problem is when you put together a whole bunch of species you can't
optimize each species separately, you have to optimize the whole thing.
Doing this one at a time you become dependent on governance by
engineering. SBV hopes that you can remove governance by engineering and
switch it to governance by biology. Which ultimately should be cheaper.
You may lose some optimization of production, but you gain independence
from the technics."
Bio2 is a gigantic flask for ecological experiments that require more
control over the environment than could (or should) be done in the wild.
Individual lives can be studied in a laboratory. But ecological life and
biospheric life require a more monumental room to view things in. For
instance, in Bio2 a single species can be introduced or deleted with
great confidence knowing that no other species have been altered -- all in
a space large enough for something "ecological" to happen. "Biosphere
2," said John Allen, "is a cyclotron for the life sciences."
Or maybe Bio2 is really a better Noah's ark. A futuristic zoo within one
large cage where everything runs wild, including the observing Homo
sapiens. The species are free be themselves and to coevolve with others
into anything they want.
At the same time, space cowboys see Bio2 as a pragmatic step on a
spiritual journey off the planet into the galaxies. As space technology,
Bio2 is the most thrilling news since the moon landings. NASA, after
routinely pooh-poohing the enterprise in its conceptual stages, refusing
to help out at any time, has had to swallow their pride and acknowledge
that, yes, there is something useful here. Out-of-control biology has a
All three spirits are really manifestations of the same metamorphosis
best described by Dorion Sagan in his book Biospheres:
The "man-made" ecosystems known as biospheres are ultimately "natural" -- a
planetary phenomenon that is part of the reproductive antics of life as
a whole....We are at the first phase of a planetary
metamorphosis,...[the] reappearance of individuality at a hitherto
unsuspected scale: not of reproducing microorganisms, or plants or
animals, but of the Earth as a living whole ...
Yes, humans beings are involved in this reproduction, but are not
insects involved in the reproduction of many flowers? That the living
Earth now depends upon us and our engineering technology for its
reproduction does not invalidate the proposition that biospheres,
ostensibly built for human beings, represent the reproduction of the
What is definitive success? Eight people living inside it for two years?
How about ten years, or a century? In fact, biosphere reproduction, the
building of dwellings that internally recycle all that is needed for
human life, begins something whose end we cannot foresee.
When everything works, and free time loosens up daydreams, the
biospherians can wonder, Where does all this lead? What's next? A Bio2
oasis at the South Pole? Or a bigger Bio2 with many more bugs and birds
and berries? The most interesting question may be: how small can a Bio2
be? Those master miniaturists, the Japanese, are crazy over Biosphere 2.
In one poll conducted in Japan, over 50 percent of the population
recognized the project. To those used to claustrophobic living quarters
and the isolation of island living, a mini-Bio2 seems positively
charming. In fact, one government department in Japan has announced
plans for a Biosphere J. The "J" stands not for Japan (they say), but
for Junior, as in tinier. Official sketches show a small warren of
rooms, lit by artificial lights and stuffed with compact biological
The ecotechnicians who built Bio2 have figured out the basic techniques.
They know how to seal the glass, schedule perpetual subsistence crops in
a very small plot, recycle their wastes, balance their atmosphere, live
without paper, and get along inside. That's a pretty good start for
biospheres of any size. The future should birth Bio2s in all sizes and
varieties, housing every combination of species. As Mark Nelson told me,
"In the future there will be an enormous proliferation of niches for
biospheres." Indeed, he sees varieties of biospheres of different sizes
and composition, as if they were different species of biospheres,
competing over territory, mingling to share genes, and hybridizing in
the manner of biological organisms. Planets would be settled with them,
and every city on Earth would have one, for experiments and