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Out of Control

I once had a tiny living planet stationed on my desk. It even had a number: world #58262. I didn't have much to do to keep my planet happy. Just watch it every now and then.

World #58262 was smashed to smithereens at 5:04 P.M., October 17, during an abrupt heave of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. A bookcase shook loose from my office wall during the tremor and spilled over my desk. In a blink, a heavy tome on ecosystems crushed the glass membrane of my living planet, irrevocably scrambling its liquid guts in a fatal Humpty Dumpty maneuver.

World #58262 was a human-made biosphere of living creatures, delicately balanced to live forever, and a descendent of Folsome's and Hanson's microbial jars. Joe Hanson, who worked at NASA's Advance Life-support Program in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, had come up with a more diverse world than Folsome's microbes. Hanson was the first to find a simple combination of self-sustaining creatures that included an animal. He put tiny brine shrimp and brine algae in an everlasting cosmos.

The basic commercial version of his closed world -- sold under the label of "Ecosphere" -- is a glass globe about the size of a large grapefruit. My world #58262 was one of these. Completely sealed inside the transparent ball were four tiny brine shrimp, a feathery mass of meadowgreen algae draped on a twig of coral, and microbes in the invisible millions. A bit of sand sat on the bottom. No air, water, or any other material entered or exited the globe. The thing ate only sunlight.

The oldest living Hanson-world so far is ten years old; that's as long as they have been manufactured. That's surprising since the average life-span of the shrimp swimming inside was thought to be about five years. Getting them to reproduce in their closed world has been problematic, although researchers know of no reason why they could not go on replicating forever. Individual shrimp and algae cells die, of course. What "lives forever" is the collective life, the aggregate life of a community.

You can buy an Ecosphere by mail order. It's like buying a Gaia or an experiment in emergent life. You unpack the orb from the heavy-duty insulation stuffed around it. The shrimp seem fine after their stormy ride. Then you hold the cannonball-size sphere in one hand up to the light; it sparkles with gemlike clarity. Here is a world blown into a bottle, the glass tidily pinched off at the top.

In its fragile immortality, the Ecosphere just sits there. Naturalist Peter Warshall, who owns one of the first Ecospheres, keeps it perched on his bookshelf. Warshall reads obscure dead poets and French philosophers in French and monographs on squirrel taxonomy. Nature is a kind of poetry for him; an Ecosphere is a book jacket blurb about the real thing. Warshall's Ecosphere lives under a regime of benign neglect, almost as a maintenance-free pet. He writes of his nonhobby: "You can't feed the shrimp. You can't snip off the decaying, dreary brown parts. You can't fiddle with the nonexistent filter, aerator, or pumps. You can't open it up and test the water's warmth with your finger. All you can do, if 'do' is an appropriate word, is to look and think."

The Ecosphere is a totem, a totem of all closed living systems. Tribesmen select totem creatures as a bridge between the separate worlds of spirit and dreams. Simply by being, the distinct world sealed behind an Ecosphere's clear glass invites us to meditate on such hard-to-grasp totemic ideas like "systems," "closed," and even "living."

"Closed" means separated from the flow. A manicured flower garden on the edge of the woods exists apart from the naturally structured wilderness surrounding, but the separateness of a garden mesocosm is partial -- more a division of mind than fact. Every garden is really a small slice of the larger biosphere we all are immersed in. Moisture and nutrients flow underground into it, and a harvest and oxygen come out. If the rest of the sustaining biosphere were absent, gardens would wither. A truly closed system does not partake in outside flows of elements; all its cycles are autonomous.

"System" means interconnected. Things in a system are intertwined, linked directly or indirectly into a common fate. In an ecospheric world, shrimp eat algae, algae live on the light, microbes survive on the "wastes" of both. If the temperature soars too high (above 90 degrees), the shrimp molt faster than they can eat; thus they consume themselves. Not enough light and the algae won't grow fast enough to satiate the shrimp. The flicking tails of the shrimp stir up the water, which stirs the microbes so that each bug has a chance to catch the sunlight. The whole has a life in addition to the individual lives.

"Living" means surprises. One ordinary Ecosphere managed to stay alive in a total darkness for six months, contrary to logical expectations. Another ecosystem erupted one day after two years of unwavering steady temperature and light in an office into a breeding panic, crowding the globe with 30 tiny descendants of shrimp.

But it is stasis that does an Ecosphere in. In an unguarded moment Warshall writes of his orb, "There is the feeling of too much peacefulness that comes from the Ecosphere. It contrasts sharply with our frantic, daily lives. I have felt like playing the abiotic God. Pick it up and shake it. How's that for an earthquake, you little shrimp!"

That would actually be a good thing for an Ecosphere world, as momentarily discombobulating as it might be for its citizens. In turbulence is the preservation of the world.

A forest needs the severe destruction of hurricanes to blow down the old and make space for the new. The turbulence of fire on the prairie unloosens bound materials that cannot be loosened unless ignited. A world without lightning and fire becomes rigid. An ocean has the fire of undersea thermal vents in the short run, and the fire of compressed seafloor and continental plates in the long geological run. Flash heat, volcanism, lightning, wind, and waves all renew the material world.

The Ecosphere has no fire, no flash, no high levels of oxygen, no serious friction -- even in its longest cycle. Over a period of years in its small space, phosphate, an essential element in all living cells, becomes tightly bound with other elements. In a sense, phosphate is taken out of circulation in the Ecosphere, diminishing the prospects of more life. Only the thick blob of blue-green algae will thrive in low phosphate environment, and so over time this species tends to dominate these stable systems.

A phosphate sink, and the inevitable takeover of blue-green algae, might be reversed by adding, say, a lightning-generating appendage to the glass globe. Several times a year, the calm world of the shrimp and algae would crackle and hiss and boil as calamity reigned for a few hours. Their vacations would be ruined, but their world would be rejuvenated.

In Peter Warshall's Ecosphere (which despite his idle thoughts has lain undisturbed for years), minerals have precipitated into a layer of solid crystals on the globe's inside. In a Gaian sense, the Ecosphere manufactured land. The "land" -- composed of silicates, carbonates, and metal salts -- built up on the glass because of an electric charge, a kind of natural electroplating. Don Harmony, the chief honcho at the small company making Ecospheres, was familiar with this tendency of tiny glass Gaia, and half in jest suggested that perhaps fusing an electrical ground wire onto the globe might keep the precipitates from forming.

Eventually the weight of the salt crystals peels them off the upper surface and they settle into the bottom of the liquid. On Earth, the deposit of sedimentary rock at the bottom of the ocean is part of larger geological cycles. Carbon and minerals circulate through air, water, land, rocks, and back again into life. Likewise in the Ecosphere. The elements it cradles are in a dynamic equilibrium with the cycling composition of the atmosphere and water and biosphere.

Most field ecologists were surprised by how simple such a self-sustaining closed world could be. With the advent of this toy biosphere, sustainable self-sufficiency appeared to be quite easy to create, especially if you didn't care what kind of life was being sustained. The Ecosphere was a mail-order proof of a remarkable assertion: self-sustained systems want to happen.

If simple and tiny was easy, how far could you expand the harmony and still have a sustainable world closed to all but energy input?

It turns out that ecospheres scale up well. A huge commercial Ecosphere can weigh in at 200 liters. That's about the volume of a large garbage can -- so big you can't reach your arms around it. Inside a stunning 30-inch-diameter glass globe, shrimp paddle between fronds of algae. But instead of the usual three or four spore-eating shrimp, the giant Ecosphere holds 3,000. It's a tiny moon with its own inhabitants. Here, the law of large numbers takes hold; more is different. More individual lives make the ecosystem more resilient. The larger an Ecosphere is, the longer it takes to stabilize, and the harder it is to kill it. But once in gear, the collective give and take of a vivisystem takes root and persists.