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Out of Control

One evening in the spring of 1991, by some bureaucratic oversight, I found myself without an escort in the nearly completed Biosphere. The construction guys had gone home for the day, and the SBV staff were turning out lights up on the hill. I was alone in the first offspring of Gaia. It was eerily quiet. I felt I was standing in a cathedral. Loitering in the agricultural biome, I could barely hear the muffled thump of the distant wave machine in the ocean, as it exhaled a wave every twelve seconds. Near the machine -- which sucks up ocean water and then releases it in a wave -- it sounded, as Linda Leigh says, like the blow of a gray whale. Back in the garden where I stood, the distant deep guttural moan sounded like Tibetan monks chanting in the basement.

Outside, brown desert at dusk. Inside, a world thick with green life. Tall grass, seaweed adrift in tubs, ripe papaya, the splash of a fish jumping. I was breathing green, that heavy plant smell you get in jungles and swamps. The atmosphere moved slowly. Water cycled. The space-frame structure creaked as it cooled. The oasis was alive, yet everything was still. Quietly busy. No people. But something was happening together; I could sense the "co" in coevolutionary life.

The sun had nearly set. Its light was soft and warm on the white cathedral. I could live here a bit, I thought. There's a sense of place. A cave coziness. Yet open to the stars at night. A womb with a view. Mark Nelson said, "If we are really going to live in space like human beings, then we have to learn how to make biospheres." He said that the first thing macho, no-time-for-nonsense cosmonauts did after floating out of bed in the Soviet skylab was to tend their tiny pea seedling "experiments." Their kinship with peas became evident to them. We need other life.

On Mars, I would only want to live in an artificial biosphere. On Earth, living in an artificial biosphere is a noble experiment, suitable for pioneers. I could imagine it coming to feel like living inside a giant test tube after awhile. Great things will be learned inside Bio2 about our Earth, ourselves, and the uncountable other species we depend on. I have no doubt that someday what is learned here will land on Mars or the Moon. Already it has taught me, an outsider, that to live as human beings means to live with other life. The nauseating fear that machine technology will replace all living species has subsided in my mind. We'll keep other species, I believe, because as Bio2 helps prove, life is a technology. Life is the ultimate technology. Machine technology is a temporary surrogate for life technology. As we improve our machines they will become more organic, more biological, more like life, because life is the best technology for living. Someday the bulk of the technosphere in Bio2 will be replaced by engineered life and lifelike systems. Someday the difference between machines and biology will be hard to discern. Yet "pure" life will still have its place. What we know as life today will remain the ultimate technology because of its autonomy -- it goes by itself, and more importantly, it learns by itself. Ultimate technologies, of any sort, inevitably win the allegiance of engineers, corporations, bankers, visionaries, and pioneers -- all the agents who once were thought of as pure life's biggest threat.

The glass spaceship parked in the desert is called a biosphere because the logic of the Bios runs through it. The logic of Bios (bio-logic, biology) is uniting the organic and the mechanical. In the factories of bioengineering firms and in the chips of neural-net computers, the organic and the machine are merging. But nowhere is that marriage between the living and the manufactured so clear as in the pod of the Bio2. Where does the synthetic coral reef end and the chanting wave machine begin? Where does the waste-treatment marsh begin and the toilet plumbing end? Is it the fans or the soil bugs that control the atmosphere?

The bounty of a journey inside Bio2 is mostly questions. I sailed in it for only hours and got years of things to consider. That's enough. I turned the massive handle on the air lock doors in the quiet Biosphere 2 and debarked into a twilight desert. Two years in there would fill a lifetime.