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Interpreting the Cathedral of Gaia: the working lab as cultural icon


SO MANY ELEMENTS distinguish the reality of Biosphere 2 from its public image that a visitor quickly subjects all preconceptions of the place to a radical revision. "Radical," of course, gives rise to fertile punning, linking the roots of Bio2's flora (which extend into soil, but not truly into the Earth; Bio2 has a basement, an industrial-looking infrastructure) with other fundamental revisions of thought. Distinct from Earth ("Biosphere 1") but dependent on it, modeled after parts of it, and capable of strikingly original transactions with it, Bio2 offers the observer the chance to rethink deeply rooted assumptions about the systems that support life.

The original "Biospherians" certainly saw themselves as radicals in the 1960s sense. Their vision of a self-contained micro-world didn't survive, but their legacy continues to influence Bio2. "They got the thing built," in the words of Bio2's site naturalist, Tony Burgess; their tradition of radically distinct thinking has outlasted the specific forms of their radicalism. Bio2 remains a place that makes innovative thought not only possible but practically mandatory.

Bio2 is unique among research facilities, a true biosphere rather than a giant greenhouse, because it is sealed from the outside world. Gas exchange is controlled by air locks, scrubbers, and pressure-regulating "lungs"; exchange of solid matter is rare and deliberate; new species are introduced only after rigorous quarantine. Yet intellectual insulation is no longer part of the mission. Bio2 combines a biosphere, a supportive technosphere, and what Vladimir Vernadsky termed an interpretive "noösphere"(1); the latter is now open to the world. Bio2's interactions with outside communities are accelerating, taking the forms of publishable papers,(2) scholarly conferences, and campus tours for both ecological professionals and laypeople.

The material closure of Bio2 has already facilitated unusual discoveries, such as a species of huge amoeba so primitive that it still relies on symbiotic bacteria, not mitochondria, to perform basic metabolic functions.(3) At first, some commentators thought these giant protozoans might represent a new evolutionary step, arising by mutation under the specialized selective conditions of Bio2; accordingly, the amoebas received the taxonomic name Euhyperamoeba biospherica. Further study revealed that they existed outside Bio2 (in the Caribbean, specifically, the model for Bio2's ocean ecosystem); they are not a new species but a rare marine species that multiplied to a position of dominance within Bio2's unusual predation chain. The organisms that feed on E. biospherica and keep its numbers down in the wild haven't done as well in the Bio2 estuary and ocean, dying out and leaving a niche for E. biospherica to take over.

Bio2 presents the ultimate in island ecology: If isolated places like the Galapagos can serve as fertile grounds for evolutionary variety by offering niche-opportunities that species would not encounter on the mainland, then Bio2 (a "hyperisland," in the words of former acting CEO Taro Takahashi, isolated both materially and biologically) maximizes the island effect. More surprises, perhaps even evolutionary ones, may be in store. Paradoxically, though, researchers can understand these processes only when the material closure is accompanied by an open flow of information. Accurate interpretation of the nature of E. biospherica meant overcoming the assumption that Bio2 is absolutely distinct from other ecosystems--and depended on Bio2's position inside the world of scientific communication.

Translating an ecosystem's languages

TO TONY BURGESS, Bio2's research is synthesizing ecologic studies and information theory. He views an ecosystem as a communication network; just as a group of people needs common information for productive dialogue, a system where various species function works the same way. "How would you communicate productively with another species?" he asks. "You first have to find out what language it's speaking; in the case of a plant, you need to know phenology--its behavior, growth rhythms, and so forth. A good horticulturalist can look at a plant and tell you how it's doing and, if it's got problems, diagnose what's wrong pretty quickly. In the reverse communication from the horticulturalist back to the plant, you can usually ameliorate conditions in a way that allows the plant to grow: pruning appropriately, for example. Each kind of plant, insect, or other organism requires a separate language; somehow you've got to broker the dialogue not just between the humans and all these organisms, but between the organisms themselves in a community if you're going to manage it effectively."

Burgess is fascinated by the depth of biologic information Bio2 makes available--and even makes necessary if its ecosystems are to be viable. "We know a fair amount about the species we've domesticated, the crop species," he says. "We know less about the 'charismatic species' like eagles, elephants, and rhinos. For the bulk of the species of the world, which are insects and microbes, we're lucky if we even know the name. It's not that these things aren't knowable with the techniques at our disposal; I could take almost any plant and find out how it behaves under various conditions, so I get response curves for temperature, moisture, carbon dioxide, and light and integrate these into models that would allow me to figure out what it was saying about what it needed to thrive. But we have not had the cultural necessity or the resources focused on this level of detail for the number of organisms it takes to make a realistic ecosystem work." With Bio2's extensive deployment of sensors throughout each biome and computer power to process the huge data chain for analysis, Burgess and colleagues are beginning not only to compile "an FBI file on every organism" but to understand the larger patterns in organisms' detailed communications with each other.

Bio2's research may yield a concept of biology, geochemistry, and ecology as cybernetic disciplines, in the spirit of Norbert Wiener's original coinage of the term cybernetics as the study of information control. Studying Bio2's hyperisland effects, Burgess finds, involves a new subjective position for the observer: "Things that were once constraints," such as boundaries and scales that warp community dynamics, "then become phenomena." Conditions such as the atmosphere's rapid responses to an organism's metabolism become aspects of feedback systems, amenable to conscious control and precise analysis. Perhaps the study of the informational transactions that compose an ecosystem could be identified as a new discipline (the name "biogeonetics" has been proposed).

Any reconfiguring of ecological science to incorporate cybernetics as more than a metaphor is likely to depend on a balance between physical closure and the free flow of ideas. Bio2 has been reconfiguring itself in exactly that direction, becoming a world center for an information-intensive, experimentally flexible, unprecedentedly interactive approach to ecological studies. Rather than an isolated colony or a microcosm of Biosphere 1, whose scalar effects it cannot hope to mimic, it may prove most useful as a heuristic tool: in Burgess's description, "a question generator, process tester, and message tester," teaching us not just what specific entities operate in an ecosystem but what questions are worth asking about them.

Embodying its principles

BIO 2 REMAINS a powerful cultural symbol as well as a working research facility; people unfamiliar with it continue to think of it in terms of enclosure, if not space colonization. But its own cultural evolution is increasing the coherence between the information exchanges taking place inside and outside its walls. It has already entered the popular mind, at least enough to be parodied in the teen-oriented Hollywood comedy Bio-Dome. On a more substantive level, by combining scholarly pursuits with an accessible public presence, Bio2 may stimulate laypeople's thinking about ecologic concerns, spreading ecosystemic memes further into the populace.

Like major icons of postmodern architecture, such as Paris' inside-out, hardware-flaunting Pompidou Center (its infrastructure on its surface, emphasizing the gritty workings that facades conceal) or New York's gleefully ornamental, Chippendale-roofed AT&T Building, Bio2 speaks boldly through its physical structure. Clear glass speaks simultaneously of openness and containment; triangular frameworks recall Buckminster Fuller's radical adaptations of geometric forms for new human uses; barrel vaults and pyramids allude to the monuments of ancient religions. Acting on the belief that, as Burgess puts it, "a cathedral is a particular cosmology made manifest in architectural form," Bio2's original managers dubbed it "the Cathedral of Gaia," alluding to James Lovelock's suggestion that Earth is a unified, self-regulating organism. The phrase remains part of the Bio2 vocabulary.

Bio2 presents a dual identity, expressing the Gaia hypothesis in the symbolic realm while testing humanity's capacity to understand and enact that hypothesis in practical terms. Its challenge is to embody, as strikingly as a great cathedral and as fruitfully as any university laboratory, the radical idea that our species' activities can fit harmoniously into the wider processes of the planet.

Related links...

  • Jennifer Cobb Kreisberg's article on Teilhard's idea of noösphere, Wired 3.06

  • Britannica Online citation for Vernadsky (requires registration)

    1. Vernadsky V. "The Biosphere and the Noösphere," American Scientist 33 (1945):1-12. See also Lapo AV, Traces of Bygone Biospheres (Sunergetic Press, 1987).

    2. The first professional manuscript to emerge from Bio2-based research under Columbia's management, a monograph by plant physiologist Guanghui Lin and former director of science Bruno Marino on 14 plant species' responses to different carbon dioxide concentrations, is currently in preparation.

    3. Spoon DM, Hogan CJ, Chapman GB. Ultrastructure of a primitive, multinucleate, marine, cyanobacteriophagous ameba (Euhyperamoeba biospherica, n.sp.) and its possible significance in the evolution of lower eukaryotes. Invertebrate Biology 114.3 (1995): 189-201.

    BILL MILLARD is the editor of 21stC.

    PHOTO CREDITS: Bill Millard.

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