Just outside the town of Oracle, Arizona, nestled between the seemingly endless plains of the Sonaran desert and the cactus-pocked foothills of Mount Lemmon, stands an enormous glass ziggurat: Biosphere 2.
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 this year’s 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. One of the committee's main tasks each year is the evaluation of "mini-grant" proposals: together with APS, the National Science Foundation provides a funding opportunity for promising and innovative science outreach projects. Qualifying proposals are voted upon by the CIP, and the ones that get selected are awarded up to $10,000 in funds to execute their project! The committee's selections for 2016 haven't been announced yet, but this is the place to check back if you're trying to stay posted on the process.
All that, however, is the boring "business" part, at least comparatively speaking. 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.
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.