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Rethinking the Biosphere : Arizona experiment could be great tool, if leaders shed ideological blinders

March 13, 1994

In the arid Arizona countryside just north of Tucson stands a superb scientific machine, a tightly sealed glass and steel complex rising 91 feet over the desert floor and covering the space of three football fields. It is a private global-ecology lab to probe the human future on Earth and beyond, extending to the colonization of Mars. Even NASA scientists say the space agency could not have done better. The only trouble is that its owners do not quite know how best to use it.

The machine is Biosphere 2, built privately at a cost of $150 million and bankrolled largely by Edward P. Bass, a Texas billionaire. Last September, seven people emerged after two years of attempting self-sufficiency in a closed system with 3,800 other species. (The overly rich soil caused oxygen to drop so low that fresh air had to be pumped in.)

Just what was proved in those two years is unclear. When details of the proposed Biosphere first became known, some derided the project as more showmanship than science; many mainstream scientists said it had no testable hypotheses or controlled experimental design.

The Biosphere team responded well by asking for a review by a panel of outside scientists chaired by a leading ecologist, Thomas E. Lovejoy of the Smithsonian Institution. But the panel quit in frustration, saying its calls for more rigorous science fell mostly on deaf ears. "That was not science, it was enclosed gardening," says Gerald A. Soffen, a panel member who was NASA's project scientist for the Viking mission to Mars.

Still, the Biosphere folks learned lessons, and these now are being applied in a second venture. Last Sunday, seven new "Biospherians" entered the planetary test tube. This time their stays will be shorter and more flexible, and various scientists will visit to conduct atmospheric, entomological and agricultural research. Oxygen will be piped in as needed; the outside advisers say that scientific results will be valid as long as input and output of chemicals or gases are measured. Thus, properly, the notion that Biosphere must be sealed has been abandoned.

Also, 40 geckos and 50 toads have been introduced to control cockroaches, which seem to be determined to follow human beings wherever they go.

Still, Biosphere leaders bridle at strict scientific methodology. The director of research, John B. Corliss, says that normal academic standards "blunt" creativity. "Our goals are high," he says. "The point of going to Mars is to strive for perfection." As for outside advice, Corliss is candid: "We listened more to those who were enthusiastic about Biosphere than those who were not."

In other words, criticism is unwelcome. The Biosphere is a magnificent tool that could be a great boon to mankind, permitting ecological science on a scale never before possible. Let us hope that its leaders can see beyond their romantic ideological blinders.

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