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
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
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