Built in the late ‘80s at the behest of an oil tycoon, the structure was intended to be a small-scale model of a self-contained ecosystem—hence the name—the earth itself is “Biosphere 1″. Constructed with an airtight seal, Biosphere 2 was built to see if humans could sustain themselves in a completely “closed system”—recycled water, oxygen and food supplied by plants grown under the glass, nothing but electricity and the sun’s energy entering or leaving. Part living art installation, part science experiment, the “human enclosure”—as B2’s staff calls it—involved eight people and lasted two years out of the three planned, due to a number of closely-scrutinized technical difficulties—by its end, it was one of the most well-known and controversial science experiments ever conducted. It was also the subject of an abysmal spoof film starring Pauly Shore (boasting an astounding 5% on RottenTomatoes) and, what’s more, it was the site of the 2016 APS Committee on Informing the Public meeting, meaning the PhysicsCentral crew got to check out this extraordinary feat of ambition and engineering!
For starters, it’s worth giving a little more background on why we were there. The Committee on Informing the Public (CIP for short) is a rotating group of about a dozen experts from the fields of physics and science outreach, who meet every year to discuss new ways to spark interest in the physical sciences.
After the deliberations and meetings, we got to take a trip “under the glass” for an exclusive tour of B2, where we learned about the history of the project and the modern research that’s being performed in this amazing, one-of-a-kind structure.
Our first stop under the glass was the landscape evolution observatory (or LEO for short), constructed in the space formerly occupied by the half-acre farm that supplied the “biospherians” with food. Since the decommissioning of the facility, most of it has lost its hermetic seal, but the LEO has remained relatively airtight, allowing it to be used for research.
|Our tour guide joked that it looks like they’re “farming dirt”—in reality, the three arched
enclosures of the LEO are used to study the effect of varying atmospheric CO2 on soil erosion.
After the LEO, we were led on to explore the “biomes”—model ecosystems, each styled after a different environment found on Earth. Our first stop was the rainforest, a dense jungle complete with a babbling waterfall and the dizzyingly thick smell of oxygen.
As much fun as it would have been to explore the rainforest, we weren’t allowed beyond a small observation deck. From there, however, we could see why this part of the biosphere was practically opaque from the outside—the more ambitious trees had formed a canopy, their leaves crowded all the way up against the glass. When the human enclosure was begun, we were told, you could see every plant in the biome from the observation deck, but after this many years the trees have grown tall and dense, and the thick curtain of young vines streaming down from the treetops obscured our vision, hiding anything more than twenty feet away. At the project’s outset, the biome also contained a small nocturnal primate called a bush baby. The fate of the creature is something of a mystery; all we were told is that it didn’t survive the experiment, but one member of our party swears she heard a former biospherian joke that “we got really hungry in there”.
|If you look closely, you can see the heads of several divers receiving their SCUBA
certification—B2’s simulated ocean is the largest body of water around for miles.
We made our way along the walkway, we passed over a mangrove forest with its roots dipped into the ocean and into the savanna biome, where strange, tentacled cacti and other exotic (at least to my Northeastern mind) plants grew. To our right, an aquaponics setup—a project from a nearby school, apparently—burbled quietly as water from a small fishtank trickled through several terraced planters, home to a fledgling crop of strawberries. A few fruit trees formed a small orchard, intended to supplement the Biospherians’ food supply, but the majority of the savanna serves as a transition zone between the rainforest and the desert that lay at the other end of the biosphere.
Further along the walkway, the plants started to thin out, and trees gave way to the scrubby grasses and cacti growing among the sandy terrain and artificial boulders of B2’s desert environment. A bird flitted in through a window, no longer sealed shut this long after the original experiment was abandoned.
“What’s going on in this video? Our science teacher claims that the pain comes from a small electrical shock, but we believe that this is due to the absorption of light. Please help us resolve this dispute!”
(We’ve since updated this article to include the science behind vegan ice cream. To learn more about ice cream science, check out The Science of Ice Cream, Redux)
Over at Physics@Home there’s an easy recipe for homemade ice cream. But what kind of milk should you use to make ice cream? And do you really need to chill the ice cream base before making it? Why do ice cream recipes always call for salt on ice?