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The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2. Jane Poynter. Thunder Mountain Press, New York, 2006. 354 pp. $26.95 (ISBN 156025775X cloth).

Scientists and the general public alike have long been conflicted over how to view Biosphere 2, the controversial experiment in space living and the would-be research center in the high Sonoran Desert north of Tucson, Arizona. Was the Biosphere, which is now up for sale and sits empty (except for a small staff and the occasional tourist), a noble effort at a hippie-like alternative lifestyle, a religious cult living in its own fantasy world, or an important test of whether humans could live in space colonies?

Actually, a little of all three, writes Jane Poynter. But more important, Poynter gives us some insight into how a group of normal, intelligent, self-motivated people respond to living for an extended time in close quarters within an enclosed structure that is cut off from the outside world—in other words, just the sort of conditions space colonists are likely to face on the moon or Mars or other alien worlds.

The Biosphere was a test of whether humans could live for an extended period in a completely enclosed ecosystem, growing their own food, breathing recycled air, and reusing water. Poynter states, “We were pushing the limits of the science and the technology of the time.... We were attempting the impossible.” They were “ready to make history.”

Poynter calls the Biosphere experience as “an extraordinary adventure” conducted by “a colorful band of mavericks.” As one of those mavericks, Poynter describes herself as a then 30-year-old woman from a well-to-do family, “a snooty English girl with high spirits, a decent intellect, and an appetite for learning and doing.”She recounts writing and acting in plays in New Mexico, sailing on a ferroconcrete research ship in the Indian Ocean, diving in the Caribbean Sea, and living in the Australian outback. All of that served as training and a rite of passage for learning how to deal with isolation, handle stress, and develop an ability to depend on others—all skills that would be required for living in the Biosphere.

Poynter recalls the excitement, reverence, and “arrogance” with which she and her fellow biospherians looked forward to living in the Biosphere.“We never suffered a shred of doubt,” she says. “I wanted to be part of something bigger than me,” she remembers, something historic. She saw the experience as “transforming,” a chance to “prove my character, my resourcefulness.”

But soon after the eight volunteers entered the Biosphere on 26 September 1991, problems arose. Over the ensuing months, carbon dioxide levels rose, then fell, rose again, and finally were brought under control. Meanwhile, oxygen levels dropped, sometimes resulting in headaches, shortness of breath, and other physical maladies for the biospherians. The food supply, which was intended to be grown mostly within the Biosphere, fell short and became somewhat monotonous when blight, insect pests, and disappointing harvests struck. The result: Persistent hunger and weight loss among all the biospherians.

Meanwhile, insects invaded the supposedly airtight structure. Ubiquitous ants killed off most other insects intentionally brought into the Biosphere, and cockroaches turned kitchen counters brown at night. Furthermore, what was launched to rave reviews by the news media turned into one negative story after another about air leaks, hidden data, food and other goodies being smuggled in, and biospherians sneaking out for pizzas (“If only we had!” Poynter laments).

More seriously, Poynter recounts the personal disputes and antipathies that soured relations between Biosphere managers and participants, between managers and outside scientists, and even among the biospherians themselves. As problems accumulated, she says, tensions rose, along with a sense of secrecy and mistrust. The participants came to be divided into “Them” and “Us,” with the two groups hardly speaking to one another. When they did speak, loud, often acrimonious arguments ensued. At one point, Poynter recalls, other biospherians spat at her.

The Biosphere's managers exacerbated those disagreements. Poynter describes John Allen, the group's founder and the project's leader, as an inspirational but at times domineering and mean person who wanted total control. They were “going down a well-documented path,” Poynter writes, in which “noble ideas with a powerful visionary to guide their execution become dogma and the leader becomes increasingly dictatorial.”

Nevertheless, the Biosphere experiment included more than 50 research projects, most conducted in collaboration with scientists from Columbia, Yale, Georgetown, Arizona, and other universities, as well as the Smithsonian Institution. Still, when the Biosphere's managers were unable to produce a plan for scientific research, the group's science advisers all resigned. They included such respected scientists as Tom Lovejoy, Stephen O'Brien, and Eugene Odum. Their resignations, in turn, led to a loss of scientific credibility that, Poynter says, “damned the project.”

One lesson that Poynter learned (and perhaps our urban society should relearn) is that farming is “bloody hard work.” The team member in charge of agricultural production, she reports often feeling dragged down by the myriad chores involved in planting, growing, raising, harvesting, and preparing food for everyone. The work often left her feeling tired and with little energy left over for creative activities or thought.

In the end, at least one question remains. Was the Biosphere project worth the effort, the cost ($150 million), and the personal acrimony? Yes, Poynter emphatically states. All of those involved in the Biosphere had collectively developed a concept, built a structure that not only worked but won numerous architectural and other awards, and learned how to operate it in the blazing heat of the Arizona desert. Food shortages and weight loss aside, the biospherians grew all of their own food and completed their two-year experiment in good health. No one left the facility early except Poynter, who had to seek medical help after part of her finger got sliced off in a rice thresher. She returned to the Biosphere a few days later.

But the question of the project's success or failure, Poynter points out, should not rest on whether the goal of sealing people inside the Biosphere for two years with nothing leaving or entering was achieved. Rather, the project should be seen as an experiment from which something is learned.

“What is most important,” Poynter concludes, is to “dream crazy dreams and to work like hell to realize them.” “We had attempted something entirely new.... Our technology was sound, the idea was noble, the project was visionary and courageous, but simple human frailty brought the walls crashing down.... It seems impossible to convey the severity of the psychological and social challenges in isolated and confined environments.”

Finally, Poynter says, the Biosphere remains “a monumental testament to the human spirit.... And if I had to do it over, I'd do it in a heartbeat.”

JEFFREY P. COHN "LIFE IN THE BIOSPHERE," BioScience 57(2), (1 February 2007).
Published: 1 February 2007

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